Well, thank you very much. Thank you. This is a daunting prospect. If I don't get the chance again, and if the moment passes, can I just say how much the work of the Academy is appreciated. And particularly Marion and Wim and Mike and everyone who works for it. Because we're going to be talking about Europe and Britain leaving the European Union, but the union of European filmmakers is separate, and that we have to maintain and we’re always part of that and always very proud to be so. It’s a great tradition or group of traditions to be part of, so there’s absolute solidarity there no question.
And also, just to begin with, one thing I’m really quite sad about – I see the necessity for it – but I’m quite sad not to hear our different languages. It’s very convenient for those of us from Britain that everyone speaks English, but it’s a pity really, because the great value of European film is its diversity and we need the different languages, even languages spoken by small groups of people. And to lose that or to diminish that is an own goal. It’s a pity, so whenever we can keep our different languages, let’s please keep them.
There are some developments that fill us with fear. We don’t know how the world is going to develop. The signs are not good.
Anyway, as we all know this has been an absolutely extraordinary year and quite a devastating year in many ways. There are some developments that fill us with fear. We don’t know how the world is going to develop. The signs are not good. The separation of Britain from the European Union is very complex and I want to say something about that, but also to examine how far the European Union itself is responsible for that breach, to see what legacy it leaves us with, where are we going? Where are we going as different countries and where are we going globally? Because this has got a huge global connection and implication. And what do we do? What do we do as filmmakers? What do we do as citizens? What do we do as activists? Because actually, I think we have to be all three. I think we’ve got to be all three.
There were a whole series of stories to show how ridiculous the European regulations were, someone spoke of straight bananas. In fact, the stories were mainly fiction.
So first of all, just to fill in a few gaps. The way the departure from the European Union was reported really doesn’t do justice to what was being said at the time. Because the reporting, and certainly the reporting within Britain, was very narrow. And I’m sure the reporting that reached you was equally narrow. So, I want to say something about that so that you get a sense of what people were talking about, and how the conversations that we were having privately, or in meetings like this, were different from the conversation that you heard in the main newspapers and through the broadcasters and probably from your own journalists as well. The public discourse was a discourse between two sections of the right. Those that wanted to leave had the slogan ‘Regain Control’. In other words, ‘regain control’ of the borders, control immigration – and immigration was the big feature of the right wing. Control over the laws, because European laws were seen to interfere with our independence. Control over regulations from the European Union. There were a whole series of stories to show how ridiculous the European regulations were, someone spoke of straight bananas. In fact, the stories were mainly fiction. But the underlying reason for many of the big industrialists wanting to break was that they thought they could exploit workers better with British independence, because they would get rid of the European protections on workers’ rights and protections for the environment. And they were quite keen to lose those, so that they could exploit people even more harshly. Those who wanted to remain wanted access to the markets, of course, and they also wanted open borders – and I want to say something about that later on – but that is of course about setting one group of workers against another. Because if you have open borders, then people who come from countries where wages are lower threaten the wages of the people in the country to which they’re coming. Those who wanted to remain from the business side, saw the European protections as fairly minimal and were under attack anyway, and were often ignored or circumvented. So, the discussion of protection of workers’ rights and protections of the environment were fairly minimal and they were seen as a price worth paying to gain access to the market.
Is it true that the European Union, stands not for the interests of the people but the interests of big corporations?
The left had a dilemma, and the dilemma was this – and I’m talking about the serious left, I’m not talking about the social democrats who I see as centre-right anyway, so let’s not discuss the social democrats in this context! The social democrats have been central to the attacks on workers’ rights. You think of Blair; you think of the pressure in France at the moment. They don’t represent the interests of the people; they represent the interests of business. Let’s speak of the serious left. For the serious left, it was a tactical question. Because if you grant that the European Union is a neoliberal organisation, then, how do you deal with that? Do you stay inside and work with left groups, express solidarity with groups like Podemos and Syriza (or what’s left of Syriza) and hope to change from within or do you stay outside and hope to weaken the whole project in order to establish something different? So it was a tactical question. The central analysis that the European Union is a neoliberal project was agreed, and that’s the next point I want to come onto, – is it true? Is it true that the European Union, stands not for the interests of the people but the interests of big corporations? That it’s been a central contributory factor to the British leaving, to the problems that we see around us? Or is it a benign organisation? People have talked about a social market which will work for the benefit of people. Or is it in fact working against the interests of people? And that is a really central question that I think all Europeans must consider.
So, is it true? Is the EU to blame for the British rejection? Or in part to blame? I went back to the founding treaties of the European Union, and this is what you find: in the treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, article 119 says that, ‘states are required to adopt an economic policy conducted in accordance with an open market economy with free competition’. Article 120 says ‘states must act in accordance with the principles of an open market economy with free competition’. In other words, protections for working class people, planning how we organise our production, planning so that areas will not be left behind, planning so that we can make investments in new industries when the old industries have died and gone: that cannot happen. That’s there in the founding document; you can’t do that. And bringing it up to date, and there are many examples – and I’m not a specialist in European law by any means, but it’s quite easy to find out. To take one example of current practice, there’s something in this labyrinth of European instructions and organisations and proposals, something called, remarkably, the Fourth Railway Package. The key point in that is that it prevents renationalisation of the railways. Now, the main opposition party in Britain proposes taking the railways back into public ownership. The privatisation of the railways has been an absolute disaster, an unmitigated disaster: more expensive, more subsidy from central governments, chaos of competing companies using the same track, the track alternatively private, public, now going to be partly private again, absolute anarchy; you can’t buy a ticket for where you want to go in one station because it’s owned by a different company to another station. You couldn’t have a more ridiculous example of the appalling effects of privatisation. What does the Fourth Railway Package say? It requires all member states that have not already done so, to open rail services to the private sector. Ignore the evidence, get big business in to make a profit. That’s where the European Union stands.
The trade treaties – for example TTIP, we’ve all been talking about TTIP and that seems to be dead in the water – but of course they have just signed one, CETA, with Canada. Large corporations will be able to sue governments, democratically elected governments, in special courts that are set up by the treaty. So where is our democratic process? Private companies can sue us. We democratically take a decision to move to public ownership to defend the environment, which will inhibit the big corporations from making as much money as they could; we’re taken to court and told ‘you can’t do that!’. Or penalised. Or fined. And it’s interesting that those on the right who talk about defending the country’s independence when it was a question of moving out of Europe, don’t seem too bothered by this. Not bothered by this lack of independence. Not bothered either by the lack of independence in our defence arrangements, our nuclear deterrent depends on the United States. No question of losing our independence there to bother the far right! Independence was a slogan, but when it comes to the interests of big business, forget it. And that was the hypocrisy at the heart of the leave campaign. Our ability, as democratic states, to take decisions in the interests of the people are undermined when the European Union signs a trade agreement which creates courts of law that can give corporations the right to decide things that we should democratically decide ourselves. It affects issues of privatisation or taking things back into public ownership, like the postal services, which have been privatised, or the utilities: gas, water and electric. These are natural monopolies with no part for big corporations to play but again, the EU would inhibit, or does inhibit, our right to take them back into public ownership. So, the right wing claim they want national independence, but if it’s a toss-up between business and your democratic rights, they’ll choose big business.
How has the European Union performed in the courts? Well, again European Union courts prioritise the interests of corporations over the interests of workers and over the interests of trade unions. Again, I’m not a lawyer, but it’s easy enough to find out. There’s been whole series of cases: Viking, Rüffert, Laval and Luxembourg cases, where the interests of corporations override the interests of people at work. One example is posted workers, where workers coming from countries where wages are cheaper can be employed according to the wages in that country. That undermines collective agreements. A union makes an agreement, and then it’s undermined by the European Union.
There’s a question of the freedoms, the free market in labour. And the free market in labour is a difficult one for people on the left, because the people on the right take great delight in making immigrants the enemy, and people on the left are determined not to do that, and to see people who come to work as fellow members of the working class. And there should be unity between us, absolutely. But equally, if there’s a free market, then the employer will choose the labour that is cheapest, that’s the point of the market. Paul Laverty and I had a good example of this when we researched a film called It’s a Free World, and we went to a farming area in the east of the country. We met a group of women, middle-aged women, who had come from the Baltic countries, and they were brought over to work the fields. They all lived in one house in dormitory rooms; they had had to pay to get there, to come from their own country; they had to pay to live there in this house – they were living six in a room, or seven in a room – pay that rent; pay transport to the fields where they were working and then were paid – well we reckoned, if it wasn’t the minimum wage, then it was probably just below the minimum wage. With these reductions they were getting much less than the minimum wage. They were taken there by bus; they worked eight, ten hours, taken back to their house. They went out one day a week, when they put on their best clothes to go to the supermarket to buy food. And that was their life. And we said to the people who were employing them, ‘why don’t you use local people?’ The people who had worked the farms were out of work in the villages, and in the towns – ‘why don’t you employ these people?’ And the guy said, “Well if they want to live in my house, if they want to pay for their transport to the fields and if they want to work for this wage, then yes, but they don’t”. Well of course they don’t! They couldn’t live on the money. That’s the reality of the free market in labour. And I think it does the left no good to deny that. We have to confront that’s what that free market means.
And the same is true for the free movement of capital: if the free movement of capital - a key pillar of the European Union - if that has a reality, it means factories close in one country, the investment goes somewhere else where the labour is cheap. And again, that’s the reality. Of course, it’s not only within Europe, it’s global. And we see work being taken to other parts of the world, and we see areas lying desolate. And again, that’s the reality.
How has the European Union acted when there have been particular critical moments? Well, we have a classic case in Greece. What the European Union has done to the Greeks is devastating, humiliating, totally undemocratic and should not have happened. One of the great stains on the European Union’s history. Greece was given loans it has no chance of repaying. The money goes to the creditors; it’s not there to reinvest in the country. The great benefit of this? Well we know the assets are sold. There’s a fire sale, so all the great things the Greek people have worked for – sell them off, sell them off to private corporations. And that’s the name of the game isn’t it? That’s the name of the game.
It’s not a great balance sheet when you’re selling the European Union to people; it’s not a great balance sheet. And that was the left’s dilemma. Do we stay within that and try and change it or do we leave? I mean, I voted to stay, because the danger is that the UK government will be even worse. That’s not a good prospect. And again, we wanted to stay in solidarity with left groups across Europe. But it was a tough choice; it was a tactical decision.
Now, what are the consequences for the people that we know, the communities that we live amongst, work amongst – what are the consequences? And I have to say the process to which the EU has contributed – it goes a long way back – it began with the Chicago economists, didn’t it, and then it was taken up with delight by Reagan and Thatcher, capitalism red in tooth and claw. It kicked off in our country in ’79, ’80 and we had factory closures, unions defeated, wages lowered, mass unemployment, alienation. And that’s been there ever since, mitigated some years, boom and bust, but substantially that’s the process. And it seems to us that the European Union has been a part of that; it’s been implicated in that project for the reasons I’ve tried to outline very briefly. So, what is the reality in people’s daily lives?
Well, I can speak better about my country than Europe in general, but the latest figure I had for Europe is that 21 million people are out of work. I don’t know if that figure is up to date but it’s the latest I could find – 21 million people out of work. In our country, it’s varied between 3 million and 2 million, and now the total declared out of work is 1.6, but that hides an awful lot. Because there are – again, figures are hard to come by – the figures that I’ve found show there are over 5 million people underemployed: that is people on short term contracts, what we call zero-hours contracts, where a worker is committed to an employer, but the employer makes no commitment back to the number of hours that they’ll work. So, you might not work, even though you’re in work. You might not work for one week or two or three days the next week. Then there are the so-called self-employed workers like delivery drivers, for example - you order a pizza, someone brings it around on the motorbike. He’s working for the pizza company, but he is – as they say – self-employed. No, he’s not. But that’s the ruse that they use. Self-employed. So, the consequence is that if he’s sick, he doesn’t get any money because he can’t go into work. He’s self-employed. Holidays? Forget it, you’re self-employed. National insurance? You’re self-employed. All the advantages are for the employer and the worker is dispensable. So, there we are again. Job insecurity is absolutely built into this economic system.
Poverty – huge rise in poverty. Food is handed out by charities in what we call food banks – different countries call them different things, have different systems. Food banks: there were about 25,000 food parcels handed out about 6 or 7 years ago, 25,000. Last year, from one group of food banks alone, not the whole number, one group, 1,100,000 charity food bags handed out to people who wouldn’t eat unless they got that food. Nearly half a million of those went to children. Just think: in Britain, 2015, nearly half a million food bags went to kids in order that they could eat. When Paul and I were doing this last film, we met families who were feeding their kids on biscuits. We met a lad, 19, we went to his room, nothing in his fridge whatsoever; he hadn’t eaten for three days before. That’s the level of poverty that this system has brought about. Homelessness – there’s a huge rise in homelessness. Areas of the country, virtually abandoned by major industries, and people getting casual work in service industries that they are not fitted for, and find very difficult to work in. Another figure: in-work poverty – these are people who are in work – 7 million people below the poverty line, 7 million! In work! These aren’t people who are trying not to work; these are people who are actually working. 7 million of them! Inequality: this system has brought massive inequality. I’ll give you a question, see who’s first to put their hand up. One chief executive officer will earn in a very short space of time what it takes the average worker to earn in a year. The average worker gets the average wage £35,000, £36,000. Something like that. How long do you think it takes this chief executive officer to earn it? 45 minutes! 45 minutes! Yeah, it’s funny. But when you’re poor, think of that inequality, think of that inequality, and get angry because that’s what’s happened.
Everything is to be sold, everything is to be sold off. Do you know we don’t even own the fire engines the firefighters go to fight fires with? In the area where I live – the British always go on about their National Health Service – the glorious achievement – social care, that’s looking after people who need care at home, disabled people, every aspect of social care outside a hospital. Guess who runs it? Richard-bloody-Branson runs it, Virgin! He needs another island in the Caribbean obviously. That’s the selling off, that’s the changing consciousness from working for the common good for what we can achieve together, to what we can sell off to big corporations to rip us off. That’s where we’ve got to, and the European Union has gone down that road, so don’t be surprised when people get angry and say we’ve had enough.
And people are angry; they’re insecure; they’re anxious; they’re fearful; they feel left behind; they feel no-one speaks for them and no-one does speak for them, by and large; no-one does. And strangely, the more this medicine has failed, the more it’s thrown down our throats. There’s no sign of anyone saying: ‘Hang on, we’ve got a problem here. It’s not working. We’ve got mass unemployment. We’ve got people feeling so alienated they’re going to vote for the far right’. Never mind that, more medicine, more of the same, more privatisation, more selling off. Because what happens when services and industries are privatised? We know what happens, the private company has to make a profit – so what do they do? The service gets worse, because they can’t afford to keep up that level of service. The people they employ are fewer, they’re on less good contracts, and they don’t do the job as well. Usually what happens when a service is privatised when people are in work, they’re told you’re sacked, re-apply for your job. Worse conditions, worse wages – do you still want your job? That’s what happens. That’s privatisation. That’s what the EU demands. And of course, our Government is only too happy to go along with it, and often uses the EU as an excuse for having to do it. So, the EU, the European Union and our right-wing governments, do a dance with each other; each knows the steps. And it’s more tragedy for families, tragedy for whole regions, more despair and alienation, and we know the political legacy, don’t we? We know the political legacy.
Now the far-right is stepping into the breach and – well we know what they’re going to do. And when Trump was elected, everybody, Le Pen walked taller, and Farage walked taller, and the people in the parties of the far-right all walked taller because one of their own is or will be in government in the States. And that’s bloody frightening to be honest. That’s frightening. It’s frightening because we know there are scapegoats; we know people who speak a different language will fear for their safety. It’s happened already. When we voted to leave the EU, there were hate crimes across our country: ‘Get out’, ‘You’ve had your time’, ‘It’s our country now’. We shouldn’t need to be saying this, particularly in these cities in central Europe, at this time; we shouldn’t need to be saying this because we know where it ends. It’ll be anti-union; there will be low taxes; there will be a form of gangster capitalism. And of course most catastrophic of all is denying the climate change, and only yesterday or the day before Trump’s main man on the climate said we’ve got no problem, just keep burning, keep burning, who cares? So, you know, it’s serious, isn’t it? It’s serious.
So, what do we do? Make films? Make films, eh? I mean there are some great filmmakers in Europe, there always have been, I guess there always will be; making humane, thoughtful, imaginative, compassionate, caring films. Is it enough? No. Will it stop them? No. So, what are we going to do? I think we’ve got to make our voices heard. I think we’ve got to actually stand up through our work in cinema, and more importantly make a stand outside the cinema, because I think they’ll be quite happy that there’s a little liberal humane clique of people making films in their arthouses, saying the things that we like to hear, and the people in charge will think how tolerant they are. It's not enough. I think campaigns are important. Mike and others campaigned for Oleg Sentsov – terrific. Absolutely we have to do that. And not forgetting the others in prison with him – green activists and others – absolutely support them. I think we have to be more open to the idea that there are regimes in the world who we should not tolerate and should not deal with, breaking international law. When we appeal for boycotts we’ve got to be more open to that, otherwise what’s the point in our speaking of solidarity if we don’t show it. We’ve got to be open to people whose land is being taken away and they say please support us by boycotting our oppressors. We must support the Palestinians. We’ve got to be open to that. I guess everyone in this room feels cinema is important – OK, well stand up, stand up and show it! We’ve got to get a collective voice which says that this group of people stands together with those who are abandoned, no one to speak for them, out of work, in poverty, across Europe and across the world. We’ve got to develop a collective voice. It’s great having meetings like this but if we all disappear and go back to our places it’s meaningless unless we develop a collective voice. I think when people look back, if there’s a world to look back from, the people they will have most contempt for are the abstentionists – people who abstain. I think they are the ones who will be excoriated. ‘OK, our life’s not too bad, I think we’ll just sit on the fence and watch it’. I think we’ve got to engage in politics; we’ve got to make political alliances. Because the barbarians are at the door; they’re at the door. Look across Europe, see where they’re going to be in power. They’re at the door, friends.
I think there’s a few – and this is where I shall be contentious – there’s a few thoughts I’d try to lodge with you, and everyone here will have different points of view, and some maybe will agree with what I say and some may not. I come from Western Europe as an old leftie, and I know there are people here who had different political experiences, their countries had different histories and they come with different legacies and different horrors of what has happened and I’m very sensitive to that, but nevertheless I’ll throw this in for general discussion: I think we’ve got to dissolve the European Union, start again. Make it a people’s Europe, and not one for the big corporations. Start again. Flatten it. Start again, and make it a Europe that acts on behalf of the whole people. I think we need fair trade, not free trade, so we equalise the economies, so that people don’t have to leave their homes in order to earn a living. You shouldn’t have to leave your home country, like the women from the Baltic that Paul and I met, just to support your families. And the only way we can do that is to equalise the economies and that means fair trade, so that countries can sustain themselves without mass migration. Because mass migration, in the end, is not sustainable. Whatever solidarity we want to show with immigrants, and we must show absolute solidarity with them, but, in the end, it’s not sustainable. You cannot empty a continent. The economies have to be equalised.
We need to plan our economies and abandon the market. The markets – and people talk about what is politically correct – the one thing that is politically correct, the one thing you are not allowed to attack, is the market. Well the market landed us in this mess. We have to plan; we have to plan. The point of the market is: if there’s a need and no profit, the need goes unsatisfied. We see need across Europe; we see need across the world. And it’s not satisfied, why? Because nobody can make a quick buck out of it. We have to change that; we have to plan. We have to plan to regenerate those areas where people are left behind. You can’t plan what you don’t own. We can’t plan the corporations. We have to own the industries that we put in their place. And not in the old top-down way, but in a democratic way, so that people control it, not some bureaucrats above them. We have to plan to protect the environment. If nothing else, we have to plan to protect the environment. When some of us were growing up - certainly when I was young, we thought ‘Well if we don’t win this time around, well we’ll win the next time around and if we don’t win then, we’ll win later’. We don’t have that chance now. We don’t have that chance. Particularly with Trump’s environmental champion in place, we don’t have that chance. We’ve got to plan. You’ve got to plan to save the planet. And we can’t plan it if we don’t own the means to make the change.
We’ve got to support our trade unions and work in organisations because, in the end, that’s our strength. Our strength is not in small groups; our strength is in the mass of the people. That means being part of your trade union – organise it. The community campaigns to save whatever – I don’t know – in every country it will be different, save the elements of a civilised society that remain. Again, just in passing, all elements of civilised society in Britain we’re seeing disappear: the libraries are shutting, just a small thing but the libraries are shutting. Places in towns where there were books, where there was culture, just going. Subsidies for the theatres have almost gone. Galleries, concert halls, financial support draining away. One area in the north-east, where we shot this last film actually, all the subsidies to the arts went, everything just went, in their ‘austerity programme’ as they called it. To save what? To save the very system that’s destroying us.
We’ve got to support international law. Now here’s a big issue: how do we support international law? You’ve got the big powers on either side breaking it and supporting those who do break it. Britain was one of the biggest culprits in breaking international law in the Iraq war; we support other countries who break international law regularly. We’re supplying arms to Saudi Arabia, which as we know is committing crimes against humanity in the Yemen. International law: I think – and again it’s just a thought – we’ve got to make alliances. We’ve got to make the United Nations a reality which it hasn’t been. And we’ve got to make alliances across the globe, with countries maybe from the south, nonaligned countries – a whole new alliance of the world against the gangster capitalists that will be running what we call the major powers. We’ve got to work actively to regenerate the United Nations and the call for international law. So – I’ve nearly finished – I think it’s really urgent. I think we have to think really hard, we have to work; we have to step out of our comfort zone. And we have to show real solidarity not just in our heads, but in what we do, with people across the world.
And to finish on two quick quotations: one’s from a writer called John Donne, who was a poet of the time of Shakespeare, he became a priest, and he wrote a famous piece of prose, which you may know. And he said this, “No man is an island” – he could have been writing about Britain leaving the EU but he wasn’t! He said, ‘No man is an island, entire of itself, every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore, never send to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.’
And one more, a cheerful one, from the legendary American trade unionist Joe Hill: “Don’t mourn, organise.”
Ken Loach, December 2016