This article was originally published on Labour List.
Like Britain, the EU isn’t perfect. Political battles need to be fought at European level, just as at national level, to change things. But our economic and environmental interdependence with our neighbouring countries makes such battles at European level vital – and the idea of opting out of them is illusory.
One market, one set of rules
The core of the EU is the single European market. One reason that neo-liberals and right-wing Tories dislike it so much is that it has rules to protect consumers, workers and the environment. Common rules for the common market are essential; as socialists, we know the damage an unregulated free-for-all can do to the economy, to the environment, and to people. And the rules we already have may not be good enough — that’s a battle Labour MEPs in the Socialist Group in the European Parliament fight daily. But they are still significant enough to send the right apoplectic.
The existence of the single market also weakens a favourite neo-liberal tactic – to say Britain can’t do this or that because no-one else will and so our competitive position would be undermined. They used this very argument to resist regulating bankers’ bonuses in Britain, until the EU put a limit on bankers’ bonuses across the whole of Europe – thanks in no small part to the work of Labour MEPs.
Of course, Cameron may well try to repeal some of the common rules, or to negotiate an opt-out, not least in the so-called social chapter: legislation that provides for parental leave, a right to a paid holiday, protection of contract rights and unfair dismissal (the TUPE regulations). Cameron has also indicated that other key protections, such as the health and safety rules that include the working time directive, may be under threat.
Thankfully, his chances of completely succeeding on this are small. If there were no EU rules on such matters, this would trigger a race to the bottom, in which neighbouring countries try to compete by lowering standards. Other EU countries don’t want this.
Nonetheless, Cameron might succeed in weakening EU social protections. If he does, we should make it absolutely clear that the next Labour government would reverse that. But, importantly, this would certainly not be a reason to campaign to leave the EU. After all, we would be even worse off if we were out in the cold, subject to the tender mercies of unilateral Tory policies!
Some people in the Labour party equate pro-Europeanism with Blairism. But Blair was notoriously reticent about strengthening EU social protection rules. Trades unions and Labour MEPs clashed repeatedly with Downing Street when it attempted to loosen the working time directive.
European action makes a difference
Most of our key political choices remain entirely a national matter. How we organise education, healthcare, pensions, social security, income tax, devolution, housing, defence, and much else besides are scarcely touched by what we agree at EU level. This means that the key tools for building a fairer society (including, crucially, redistribution of wealth and the provision of universal public services) are decided at home, not in the EU.
But some important areas are decided at European level: consumer protection rules, many workplace rights, regulating multinationals, and environmental standards. And Europe has the potential to be more effective. The EU agenda includes measures to fight tax evasion and tax avoidance by companies that transfer profits to low tax jurisdictions, but our Conservative government has shown a marked reluctance to to agree to anything radical. Yet the potential is huge: a study by the Socialist Group in the European Parliament concluded that the total government revenue lost across Europe through tax evasion and avoidance is greater than all the budget deficits of all European countries.
Shaping European rules can also sometimes be a tool for a better wider world – if we win our battles. The EU has more clout than individual countries in standing up to the restrictive practices of multinational companies, as it has done with Google, Microsoft, Gazprom, Deutsche Bank and many others.
Developing countries often prefer the EU (rather than the US, Russia, or others) as a partner, because it has opened its markets to them more (and, by the way, it is the world’s biggest aid donor). And EU consumer protection rules (including on the safety of food and pharmaceuticals) often set the standard for other countries, as the latter anyway need to follow them for their exports to the EU as the world’s largest market.
Meanwhile, the EU’s clout in trade negotiations far outweighs what its member countries could achieve individually. This is true despite our worries about the ongoing TTIP negotiations, where we still have a better chance of blocking the undesirable proposals than we would if a unilateral UK-US agreement were being negotiated, especially by a Conservative government.
So, if we win political battles at EU level (and we often do), it can be a force for the good. But, some would say, what about austerity policies and the treatment of Greece?
Strictly speaking, the bailouts to Greece are not an EU matter, in that they came not from the EU budget but from the IMF and from other eurozone countries. The EU’s own rules on deficits allow for Keynesian flexibility and, within that, for each country to decide how it wants to raise revenue and what it wants to spend.
But here, it was the creditors who called the shots. Negotiations with Greece were unusually fraught, not just because of the German finance ministry’s hardline position, but also because several eurozone countries that are poorer then Greece baulked at giving a third bailout to a country that had already had half of its debt written off – and because the bulk of its massive debt was nothing to do with (and predated) the 2008 financial crisis. Much can be said about the Greek drama of last summer, but simple or typical it was not.
Of course, at the moment, the biggest Europe-wide issue on our TV screens is the refugee crisis. This is a dramatic challenge for European countries, and would be whether we were in or out of the EU. The attempts by Nigel Farage to conflate this with EU freedom of movement is despicable: he knows full well that, as the refugees are not EU citizens, they have no automatic right to free movement. This is a common challenge in a field where the EU as such has little power – it is up to the member countries to work together, which they are signally failing to do. But if they don’t – and each one pulls up the drawbridge or tries to push the refugees onto their neighbour – the tragedy can only worsen.
Why the EU exists
Necessity is often what drives European-level cooperation. Like it or not, our interdependence with our neighbouring countries means there are a number of problems that can only be adequately addressed jointly. The EU is where that cooperation takes place – frequently including tough arguments.
In any case, the fact that the rest of Europe is by far our biggest trading partner makes membership vital. This is true both in terms of access for our exports, and in terms of having a say in the rules for that market – not, like Norway, having to accept them with no say. Countless British jobs depend on it.
Finally, on the left, and even in these difficult times, we should not sneeze at the idealism that led to the creation of the EU. In a continent riven by warfare for centuries, building up a structure that creates some common interests, and in which we can have our arguments across a debating chamber or a negotiating table, is an improvement. It needs nurturing, not destroying.