Monday 26 November 2012

UK Labour and the EU

In Britain, Labour is in a curious spot. After it allied with Eurosceptic Tory rebels to defeat the government on a non-binding motion on the EU budget, Labour Leader Ed Miliband tried to outline a sort of pro-European realism (interview with The Telegraph here), which has managed to convince neither the Eurosceptic Telegraph or pro-European Jon Worth. Jon Worth argues:

"Would Labour dare say it has a “hard-headed” approach to schools or hospitals? No it would not, because being seen to be harsh on such issues is at odds with the values of the party, the values that we are all better off if we work together to achieve collective goals.

Labour’s rhetoric should be that to achieve what we need to achieve in the UK, we also need the European Union. An unrestrained free market, with Britain outside the EU, would mean less social protection, more of a race to the bottom on tax, harsher conditions for workers. The social systems of countries across the European Union should be an inspiration for the UK. Labour has made noises saying the German social model is to be admired; the means to achieve it is at EU level."

Leaving aside the tactical issues with Labour trying to present itself as an option for those who want to be tough on the EU (see Jon's post for more), the central issue for Labour when it comes to the EU is that it finds it almost impossible to articulate a centre-left vision on Europe. Occasionally there are noises on the left that leaving the EU would lead to a more deregulated (and unequal) Britain, with less economic and political clout. But such a basic idea is hard to express, since the major narrative in Britain on the EU is of the internal market as an indisputably good, but fundamentally technical, arrangement that has been cluttered up by the EU "extras" of social, environmental and home affairs policy. (I have previously argued that as the trade-off for opening up and giving up national controls, Member States projected parts of their social contract [parental leave, etc] on to the European level to balance the socially negative parts of market liberalisation out, as a kind of quasi-European Social Contract).

Labour, while realising that the internal market is political when it comes to employment rights and the social impact of competition across Member States, mainly accepts this narrative - at least in general - and only occasionally defends established benefits won at the European level. This basically means that Labour agrees that the EU is just an intergovernmental deal-making machine, but the UK happens to come out of the cost-benefit analysis a bit better than the right thinks. This argument isn't a credible position because it doesn't deal with Euroscepticism either in general or on the left - that the EU goes too far in the technocratic imposition of free-market policy - and it says nothing of the issues of democratic deficit or even suggest a vision for the reform.

Also, the idea that the EU's credibility problem could be solved with a few reforms - and vague and undefined reforms at that, because apparently just demonstrating the ability of the UK win any reform will prove the EU's credibility - is a patently tokenistic approach. It focuses too much on bringing trophies back from EU summits: a short-term and shallow way of conducting politics that will not make a convincing EU policy.

So what should Labour do? It may seem academic at first, but Labour needs to look at it's values, and build up from there. It needs to say why, from a centre-left perspective, (a) a European level of governance is a good thing to be a part of, and (b) what participating in that means in terms of reforming the EU, and what Labour stands for in the EU.

A Social Democratic/Labour vision for Europe

I've already written about the failings of the intergovernmental argument for the EU - the basic peace argument and a simple cost-benefit analysis of membership doesn't answer the pressing questions of representation and participation. Earlier this month, the Guardian/Observer outlined a harsh anti-vision to parallel that of the Eurosceptic press in Britain: that withdrawal will mean less economic sovereignty and more deregulation - essentially that the UK will have less power to steer itself through the global economy. A more positive vision from the centre-left would be to articulate a vision where participation in the EU enhances not just the UK's position as a Member State, but allows the people to participate in economic decision-making to a greater degree than if the UK wasn't a member. Implicit in the concern on the left that withdrawal will lead to deregulation and rising inequality is that the EU, by building the richest market in the world, gives the UK a share in the economic power needed to maintain its social contract.

When it comes to the internal market, it should not just be accepted that the internal market is a good technocratic arrangement - the left doesn't think that the market at home is an unalloyed good or that it's unpolitical, so why should it be accepted on the European level? The idea of the internal market not just being about free markets, but fair markets would reconnect Labour's Europe policy with its values, and give it something to stand for during the European elections. At the moment, Labour can hardly be said to be giving people a choice at elections, or thinking much about why it wants seats in the European Parliament at all. What connection does budget cuts on a European level have with Labour's domestic mantra that more investment in the economy is needed? What connection does Labour's rejection of a European Financial Transaction Tax have with its position on the financial sector? What's Labour's position in the Socialists and Democrats Group in the EP compared to the Tories' ECR on the internal market?

This also speaks to the type of reforms that would matter at the EU. Trophies won at EU summits have a short political shelf-life and exclude people from power, rather than opening up the EU to democratic participation. It may be argued that being part of the EU gives the UK more influence, but what use is that to people if the power is wielded more by diplomats than democrats? The national interest does not define everyone, and people should be able to participate in the opportunities that pro-Europeans argue being a member opens up for the Member States. Reconnecting Europe policy with centre-left values would link up questions of economic regulation, social justice and democratic representation and participation in a way that lends itself more to a credible and coherent vision.

Labour and the EU

Of course, my opinions on the left and Europe are far from representative of the UK Labour party, so you couldn't just turn Labour around into advocating that the EU becomes more democratic and less intergovernmental. But looking again at Labour's values when it comes to market regulation and social justice should be the starting point when formulating its position on the EU. It needs to ask itself if it thinks that being part of the EU means that the UK is more able to construct the kind of social and economic future that Labour would be in favour of,* and what kind of future does Labour want to articulate.

This doesn't mean that Labour politicians should ramble on about Labour values and the EU any time it comes up - this is more about knowing where you're coming from so you can be credible in where you're going. For example, when employment rights and the EU comes up, Labour could talk about being for the internal market, but that it needs to be fair (e.g. protect parental leave across the EU so a minimum standard cannot be undercut), and that the rights of all workers should be protected. Labour could also say how they want the internal market to be more effective or fairer, and contrast its position with the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. (Having examples of what Labour is doing in the European Parliament would be a help too).

Being able to say what you're for and what you want to change is, obviously, an essential part of being a political party. If Labour can't say what it's for based on its claimed values, then it shouldn't draw attention to its lack of ideas on Europe.

*The right could do just as well politically in the EU, however.

Postscript: UK Europhiles

Jon Worth also made a good argument about the bad position of UK Europhiles, though I disagreed with him on having a "let a thousand flowers bloom" approach to winning referendums:

"I don’t think the “letting a thousand flowers bloom” model is a viable one for a pro-[anything] side in a referendum. A strong case – and persuasive narrative – needs to be built around the rationale for the EU, single market, etc., if it’s to win support. Pick and mix when challenging the status quo (which is the UK’s mindset towards the EU no matter how established the EU institutions may be) will not work. Personally the lesson I’ve learnt from referendums in Ireland is that political parties are simply not designed to fight them properly, and that civil society groups win referendums."

While I stick to that, if Labour, and other pro-Europeans on the right and centre, articulated their own narratives for why EU membership is good, that would strengthen the pro-European position. It would supplement the core argument by giving people of different political backgrounds a path to buy in to the core argument. However, for a referendum, the core argument of a campaign for something would need to be pretty coherent for it to win.

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