If Britain leaves Europe should we care?
No-one should be under any illusion that a successful ‘in’ vote after a June referendum will be the end of Britain’s attempts to create turmoil in Europe. Cameron has himself hinted as much by talking of the negotiations as a ‘milestone’. Our view is that Cameron will not win by a big enough margin to quell the eurosceptics in his own ranks, even if he wanted to draw a curtain down over Britain’s enduring dissatisfactions with Europe. He does not think that a ‘yes’ vote will be the end of the story, but will use a ‘yes’ vote on the successful negotiation of referendum terms as a platform for Britain’s next assault on Europe in the form of further demands for special treatment of Britain.
Despite Britain’s wrecking of the EU since Thatcher and Blair did their worst, the British calculation is probably that there is still more work to be done before Europe is weakened sufficiently to permit Britain to play balance of power politics on the continent once more, just as it did in the good old days. Merkel and Hollande are like rabbits paralysed into inaction by the British stoat, who will not rest satisfied until it has sucked all the blood out of their bodies. They are in thrall to the myth that Britain is the safeguarder of freedom and democracy in Europe. Germany is also terrified of having to take a hegemonic political role once the camouflage provided by the British presence has been stripped away. This is probably the key point to bear in mind when considering the bogus sound and fury of the negotiations over Britain’s special demands. When it comes to it, the leading European countries, principally France and Germany, do not have the moral courage and probably not the strategic perception, to resist British demands for special treatment that any realist can tell will never cease.
For this reason, we think that the brake that Britain has put on further Eurozone integration will probably be fatal to the euro project. There is no British veto on Eurozone regulations, but the fact that Britain can force its objections to be heard will be enough. The Eurozone countries will simply not have the bottle to face down British demands to halt further integration through regulation and institution building. This is probably the most significant of the concessions made by European leaders to Cameron. At one time, the Eurozone looked like it could be a way of circumventing British obstruction and of moving integration forward. We still think that this remains a possibility if the Eurozone countries were to have the courage of their convictions. It would be good for Europe as it would ultimately limit the ability of the Anglo/US world to dictate trade and financial policy to the rest of the world. However, the new deal means that we can now effectively discount that line of development. On the other hand, if Britain votes ‘no’ and leaves, then further integration might just possibly still be on the agenda for the Eurozone. For those undetermined about how to vote this should weigh heavily in their considerations.
Where does this leave Labour and the trades unions? The first point to make is that if they had been doing their jobs they would have laid down markers for the negotiations years ago. There would be no agreement to any attempts to dilute workers’ rights, any attempt to stymie European integration would have been met by counter-demands to bring in legislation to bring Britain more into line with the rest of Europe on social partnership if Cameron were to count on their support. Cameron should have been given no quarter; he should have been stretched on a rack with neoliberal eurosceptics pulling at one end and European Social and Christian democracy pulling at the other. Both these movements were the drivers of social partnership in Europe and have more in common with each other than with Labour, especially the Blair variety of Labour. It’s an opposition’s job to oppose – Labour was just pathetic and the trade union movement, with a very few honourable exceptions, no better. Jeremy Corbyn has now taken up the themes of social Europe, but it is too little and far too late to influence Cameron. In any case, most of his parliamentary colleagues are with Cameron in wishing to throttle Europe slowly.
Neither Labour nor the unions have ever established a coherent position in Europe. The result is that they are coat-tailing the Tories. There is a clear danger for Labour in playing second fiddle to Tory referendum campaigns, as the Scottish campaign in 2014 showed all too clearly when Scottish voters went to the polling booths in the General Election of 2015. Failure to establish a coherent position based on European Social or even Christian democratic values will weaken an already unconvincing position. Viscerally anti-Europe, the trade unions were superficially won over to European social democracy by Jacques Delors at the TUC conference in 1988, but the conversion was only ever skin deep.
Labour under Blair became quiescent on the issue with a Thatcherite perspective aimed at disrupting the EU, which he achieved with remarkable success with the accession of the ex Warsaw Pact countries and the newly independent Baltic states. Incidentally, two of these (Estonia and Latvia) violate fundamental EU principles by refusing to allow ethnic Russian citizenship of their countries except after passing stringent linguistic and constitutional tests. The EU collectively has barely raised a squeak of protest about this. Even worse, in the Ukraine, the EU supported a US-sponsored coup against a Government which wanted to maintain friendly trade relations with both Russia and the EU. The result was to foment instability leading to war, the detachment of the Crimea to Russia, and the destruction of the heavy industry base—a legacy of the Soviet era. The EU has become a disruptive force in world affairs – something else for the undecided referendum voter to ponder.
Social partnership European-style was regarded with disdain by the unions and Labour hardly had any incentive to take it seriously. The fact that the late Eamonn O’Kane when he was General Secretary of the NAS/UWT was successful with this approach never cut much ice with rest of the union movement and Frances O’Grady’s courageous attempts to put the issue on the table in a broader European context met with ‘a complete ignoral’ from her colleagues in leading positions in the union movement with very few exceptions.
This suggests that Labour and the trade unions are unlikely to provide any resistance to further emasculation of the EU following a ‘yes’ vote. We acknowledge that there are those such as Corbyn and O’Grady who would like to pursue a different course, but we cannot see that they are going to make any significant difference to British policy. Those contemplating a ‘yes’ vote need to take this into account.
The issue that is most likely to decide the outcome is migration. It is now acknowledged that Eastern European migration keeps wages down in both low and higher skilled areas of the British labour market. It is not in the interests of the British worker seen from the perspective of his own wage packet and job security, particularly as the Government fails to invest in the additional infrastructure needed in housing and the social services to accommodate the extra two million people who have arrived from Eastern Europe over the past couple of years. If one despairs of any more positive development in the trade union movement and is also angered by the plight of British workers then this is also an important consideration. An ‘out’ vote would be unlikely to develop the British working class but it might afford it some protection from the winds of competition, at least until the Tories swept away European legislative constraints on employer prerogatives. This is a point that those contemplating a ‘no’ vote should consider.
The fact is that Britain’s behaviour in Europe has been disastrous for the continent and Britain will not stop until any pan-European development has become impotent and Europe ripe for manipulation once again. Labour is in danger of becoming an accessory to this project and the Blairites will have no objection to it anyway. If we could envisage a situation after an ‘in’ vote in which Labour could halt further disruptive moves in their tracks we would be tempted to vote for ‘in’. The fact of the matter, however, is that we see little prospect of that happening. If this is a bleak situation then it is one of Labour’s and the unions’ own making. They had it in their power to urge for something different, more in line with the successful developments pursued by their colleagues in other parts of northern Europe. They have shown themselves indifferent to such policies and are unlikely to change. It is difficult to regard the coming campaign over Britain’s status in Europe with anything other than indifference.