Ahead of the Brexit referendum in June, Getintothis’ Jono Podmore contemplates life without the EU.
For most British musicians gigging in Europe is a significant career lifeline. The UK market and live scene just isn’t big enough to support the amount of artists we generate in this country. But before the creation of The Schengen Area the customs aspect of touring in Europe was an absolute pain in the ass. Every piece of equipment had to be listed on an official ATA Carnet to check that exactly the same gear went out of each territory as it came in.
The bureaucracy was slow and often meant a desperate dash to the ferry after picking up the Carnet on the day of the first gig of the tour. The procedure also gave customs officials’ carte blanche to stop any bunch of fun loving artistes and get them out of the van to count through every cable, effects pedal and drumstick. In the worst case scenario soundchecks, gigs and sometimes even entire tours had to be cancelled at short notice. The Schengen agreement, as a policy of the EU, saw away with that nonsense, because of course it wasn’t just itinerant musicians missing shows and having to cancel tours due to the border controls, any small business would suffer when they should have been able to easily access other markets, and share ideas.
What’s the EU ever done for me? Well that was exhibit one.
I have a part time professorship in Germany; I get paid in euros and spend most of it in pounds on rent in Britain. I pay German tax but most significantly get automatic tax relief in the UK for that. So I don’t pay twice and have to claim it back – effectively bankrupting myself every April, as it would be if I worked outside of the EU. I teach in English, I do the admin in German; my students are from all over the world. All this is facilitated and funded to a degree by the EU. In Universities all across the EU and in all subjects there are people like me – the intellectual impact of leaving the EU would be catastrophic. Sharing intellectual, educational and scientific goals across borders between peoples promotes peace across generations. I will not be putting a bayonet on to my rifle and marching across a field to stab Germans who I probably taught how to use a mixing desk or could even be a member of my family.
One of the reasons the EU gets such undying support in Germany and France in particular is that concept of peace. They see the EU as an organisation created to prevent us descending as a society into the horror of two world wars again.
Togetherness as an end to war.
Yes – Britain was bombed in WW2 but it wasn’t an actual battlefield. British popular culture has managed to reduce the war to a sporting event that “we won”, conflating it with the 1966 World Cup victory. Not only is this utter nonsense in the factual sense, as a brief look at the numbers reveals that the Soviet Union absorbed and destroyed the Third Reich and paid an enormous, almost incalculable human cost, but it shows a dumbed down view of the reality of war. Watch this video for a better idea, particularly from about 5:30.
Things are different in the countries where the events took place.
Perhaps my favourite work of art (that’s a ludicrously huge thing to say but I really mean it) is by German artist Gunter Demnig, which you can see here.
“The artist … remembers the victims of National Socialism by installing commemorative brass plaques in the pavement in front of their last address of choice. There are now Stolpersteine (lit. “stumbling stones or blocks”) in over 610 places in Germany as well as in Austria, Hungary, the Netherlands, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Norway and Ukraine.”
Cologne is full of them; sometimes as many as 20 in front of one house. Entire families, deported and murdered, and perhaps with the additional suicide of the one that gave them away to the authorities. Many of the houses, if they escaped the bombing, haven’t changed so you can easily imagine the emaciated kids whose names and ages you just read being dragged out by uniformed hoodlums and bundled off to be exterminated.
Oh, yes – it still hurts. It’s still there.
Another wonderful examination of how close the trauma of WW2 really can be to us is the novel Austerlitz by W G Sebald.
Give it a read, if you haven’t already. Set across Europe from Wales to Hungary it demonstrates the effects of the trauma of war on just one man, and thereby perhaps all of us.
But that desire for peace is in itself problematic as it began to mean anything the EU commission did would get a rubber stamp. Surely it had to be right, they were doing it to stop war. Initially that led to minor irritations; the petty corruption and inefficiencies that any government breeds. This developed into arrangements for supranational corporations to get favourable legislation via lobbying while laws for the population of the EU were stalling – the mishandled introduction of the single currency is an example and the disgraceful TTIP is its ultimate expression
But then along came an event that changed everything – the 2008 crash. Governments all over the world decided the only way to maintain stability was to bail out the gamblers, the swindlers, the aristocrats and the warmongers at the banks who had made fatal deals, but unlike the rest of us mere humans are too big to fail. To pay for this, austerity was introduced. It was not just individual nation states fell for this nonsense (excluding Iceland), but the entire EU. This is most clearly demonstrated by the treatment of Greece – Portugal, Spain, Italy and Ireland are not far behind from being effectively run by unelected banking concerns at the heart of the EU. Theopi Skarlatos and Paul Mason’s 4 four-part series telling the story of the European Union’s confrontation with the Greek Syriza party in 2015 is an eye opener.
“An economic war” – strong words…
Yanis Varoufakis, the ex finance minister of Greece, who saw this process of asset stripping the poorest to satisfy the greed of the richest at first hand, speaks of a “democratic deficit at the core of the EU”.
If anyone, he has personal reasons to see Brussels condemned to the ash heap of history, but crucially, he supports the EU and says Brexit would be an absolute disaster.
The argument is something like this; Europe’s current government, like many governments across the world are, since 2008, run by incompetent puppets of banking concerns to force the austerity programme on to populations insufficiently empowered to fight back. Terrible as this is, it means that we should boot them out of office and replace them with real, democratically elected politicians in transparent structures who will help the less well off rather than punish them to pay off the debts of the banks. Rather than rip apart our democracies to get rid of them, we should use our democracy to get rid of them. Put more simply – you can disagree with what the government is doing, but that doesn’t mean you think there should be no government at all. As a British citizen I have lived through times of deep embarrassment at the behaviour of my government and felt a deep loathing for its major players, yet I acknowledge the necessity of government itself. Why not apply the same principle to the EU? There will be those who argue for less government and “freedom” but as such they should have little interest in voting or the functions of democracy anyway.
So who could possibly benefit from Britain leaving the EU? Not musicians clearly, or scientists, or the disabled. Not the environment, not our food, not our working hours or our health would benefit. The list goes on.
But there are a handful of super rich tycoons who would benefit. They would benefit from the further deregulation of our market, derailing employment law, hard won workers rights and the fact that as a smaller, less powerful entity, our government would be utterly powerless to resist corporate power. These are people like Rupert Murdoch who famously once said “When I go into Downing Street they do what I say; when I go to Brussels they take no notice.”
That’s why he will be voting for Britain to leave the EU. He’s not the only one and he’s terrifyingly powerful. The asset strippers and poor bashers that have their claws into the UK and the EU governments at the moment are licking their lips at the thought of a broken and disparate Europe.
You thought they are taking the piss now? Wait til Brexit.
But perhaps a more pressing, more worrying trend running alongside the demonisation of the EU is fascism. Nazism and its astonishing success in grasping power in Germany in the 1930s was a direct result of economic pressures on Germany enforced by its neighbours. Lo and behold, Greece now has perhaps the most vile and strong fascist party in Europe: The Golden Dawn. Austria too has just lurched towards the extreme right with a victory for the openly racist, gun toting Norbert Hofer in the first round of the presidential election.
As the austerity continues this racist, fascist trend will gather strength across Europe. Only a pan European organisation can combat this successfully – and that is the EU.
It’s interesting and curiously comforting to see how the issue of our EU membership is splitting the Tory party. Half of them have their money in businesses that benefit from EU regulations such as the Schengen agreement, the others are up to their eyeballs in the filth of the banksters, rubbing their hands at the idea of Britain reduced to a tax haven for the dirtiest of international money. A no questions asked offshore tax haven populated by the super rich in gated communities and the rest of us as serfs catching crusts thrown over the gate in disgust. Boris Johnson, Michael Gove – that’s what they are actively aiming for.
By contrast the Labour party are, quite miraculously considering the upheavals of the last six months, unanimously in support of remaining in the EU. David Miliband said: “For Britain to quit Europe would be an unprecedented act of political self-destruction.”
Labour party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, said: “Just imagine what the Tories would do to workers’ rights here in Britain if we voted to leave the EU in June. They’d dump rights on equal pay, working time, annual leave, for agency workers, and on maternity pay as fast as they could get away with it. It would be a bonfire of rights that Labour governments secured within the EU.
Not only that, it wouldn’t be a Labour government negotiating a better settlement for working people with the EU. It would be a Tory government, quite possibly led by Boris Johnson and backed by Nigel Farage, that would negotiate the worst of all worlds: a free market free-for-all shorn of rights and protections.”
So when it’s time to vote in the referendum on June 23 please take it very seriously. The choice is simple: a difficult future re-building bridges with our neighbours across Europe to withstand and resist the worst of the corporate piracy let loose on us worldwide by the 2008 crash or the reduction of Britain to a impoverished, socially divided and brutalised Liechtenstein on sea. It’s up to you.
And if it all goes wrong, you might have trouble getting a visa to get out; that break in Ibiza, the Algarve, the stag night in Amsterdam, romantic weekend in Paris, a weekend raving in Berlin? Forget it. You’re stuck in little shrinking Britain. Freedom of movement will be for the elite, the aristocracy of swindlers and champagne/cocaine guzzling abusers, not for the likes of you.
Vote wisely on June 23.
This piece is dedicated to the memory of Emil Schmitz and Helene Schmitz (born Landau) who lived in the house in Cologne that I’m writing from. They were deported to Riga in 1941 and later declared dead. She was 51, he was 58.