2016 05 – The European Union Referendum Revisited

The European Union Referendum Revisited.

by Mark Cowling

Labour Affairs has had singularly little to say about the referendum, except for the strangely depressed editorial in the March edition. This took the view that it was a matter of indifference as to which side won in the referendum. The reasoning there was that Britain has played such a negative role in Europe that our departure would benefit the rest of the EU. Thus, the benefit to the rest of the EU of Brexit was argued to be about equal to any detrimental effects here.  The editorial had a strangely detached and sorrowful tone. In what follows I want to pursue the argument that, instead, it would be worth reminding readers of the political importance of the European Union, and of the social benefits of remaining part of it.

It is worth remembering that most of us still have to live here after June. What sort of society do we stand for? The answer to be found in other Labour Affairs editorials and articles is a more equal society, based on good quality education and jobs for young people, a decent welfare state, ensuring that wealthy people pay their taxes, and an end to British meddling in the affairs of other countries. On the face of it, countries such as Germany, Sweden and Denmark are closer to realising these aims than the UK. Closer association with them is likely to encourage British people to adopt similar policies.

The level of public debate on the issue has been very poor. David Cameron’s re-negotiations were intended to resolve the split in the Conservative Party over the EU rather than make any major difference.  The concessions which he negotiated are cosmetic rather than real.

  • Depriving Poles of child benefit at British levels is not likely to deter them from coming here, and will cost so much to administer that no money will be saved.
  • The ability to curtail in work benefits as an emergency measure looks similar. Both are likely to impress people from Eastern Europe as unwelcoming, whilst doing far too little to convince UKIP supporters.
  • The concessions on the Eurozone also do little to alter the status quo. We may be formally exempted from bailing out the Euro, but its collapse would be so detrimental that Britain would be in a similar position to that of finance ministers faced with the 2008 banking crisis: the behaviour of the bankers may have been highly irresponsible, but allowing banks to fail was not a realistic option. And no-one is forcing the UK to join the Euro, so being allowed to keep the pound is hardly a major concession.
  • The explicit commitment that Britain will not be forced to be part of an ‘ever closer union’ does not change Britain’s situation – it does not of itself carry any provisions to implement this. On the other hand the provision that 55% of EU governments can block unwanted legislation is a change.  However, although the role of qualified majority voting under the Lisbon Treaty is a somewhat arcane subject, the provisions to enable it are mainly used to encourage unanimity.
  • In the words of the BBC website, the next concession is as follows: Competitiveness – The settlement calls on all EU institutions and member states to “make all efforts to fully implement and strengthen the internal market” and to take “concrete steps towards better regulation”, including by cutting red tape. What this means concretely depends on what is actually done, and will be discussed further below.
  • Finally, there are some very minor changes to rules about free movement.

Overall, then, the renegotiation amounts to very little – it is basically part of a smoke and mirrors exercise so that David Cameron can say that he has secured major concessions, the electorate can vote to remain part of the European Union and Conservative disunity over Europe can be much reduced for the foreseeable future.

The argument which is being pursued in the press and the media generally is largely a narrowly economic one, to the extent that one recent poll found that voting for or against Brexit was so narrowly tied to economic considerations that a majority either way could be procured by offering an extra £20 per year in one direction or the other.  This is completely pathetic, and demands the careful and thoughtful analysis which Labour Affairs editorials very frequently produce.


The positive case.

The really important issues are largely going by default, given the way in which the media are presenting things to the British public.  If you are making a decision for at least a generation you need to see the big picture and think about the long term.  This really does not seem to be discussed at all.

The European Union is actually a wonderful achievement which should be celebrated.  Wars have disfigured the European continent over the centuries.  The two world wars of the 20th century were particularly devastating.  In the First World War Britain lost about 2% of her population, whilst France and Germany lost around 4% each.  In the Second World War, Germany lost about 8% of her population, whilst Britain and France lost around 1% each.  Losses obviously extended across Europe and worldwide, and there was massive economic destruction and terrible dislocation to the lives of many millions of people.  It is widely accepted that the Versailles Treaty at the end of the First World War implemented a settlement which was so humiliating to Germany that it laid the foundations for the Second World War.  A very important part of the reasoning behind the foundation of the European Economic Community was that a framework of peaceful cooperation was vastly better than the national rivalries which had historically led to armed conflict.

In contrast to the increasingly tense situation which followed the First World War, the countries of the European Union have in essence cooperated harmoniously together.  Disputes have typically involved French farmers blocking the roads with with tractors, or diplomats involved in overnight negotiation rather than blitzkrieg.  Prosperity has increased enormously.  Countries outside the original six members have found the benefits of the European Union extremely attractive.  Dictatorships in Greece, Spain and Portugal collapsed, at least partly because democracy and the benefits of the European Union were so much more appealing.  Whilst the disintegration of Soviet style communism in Russia and Eastern Europe was largely the product of its own internal problems, the much greater success of the managed capitalism of Western Europe must have been a factor.  Looked at this way, an institution which costs about 1.4% of current British public expenditure is an extraordinarily good bargain.

A second major reason for remaining is mentioned above but needs to be spelt out.  The European Union was basically constructed by social democratic parties and Christian Democratic parties.  Christian Democrats attract many of the voters and groups who would support the Conservatives in Britain, but have a rather different ideology.  They see society as a collection of families, for example the catholic family, the Protestant family with its subdivisions, the secular family, the trade union family, the big business family and so forth.  All of these families need to be considered and cared for.  So although overall Christian Democrats are more the party of business, they are less aggressive advocates of free enterprise than are the British Conservatives.  They are definitely less keen on the new right form of liberalism which came to dominate the Conservatives under Mrs Thatcher, and which has remained a central feature of the Conservative Party and been very influential across British society.  It is thanks to this Christian Democratic – Social Democratic consensus that the European Union’s Social Chapter includes such provisions as a maximum 48-hour week and an assortment of rights for people such as part-time workers.  The pledge which Cameron secured to cut down red tape is therefore alarming: quite a large proportion of the “red tape” actually concerns the rights of working people.  It is a fair bet that, if politicians such as Nigel Farage come to dominate British politics following Brexit, this red tape will be considerably cut down, and the tedious rights currently assigned to part-time workers and so forth will cease to trouble British employers.

The institutions of “ever closer union” are also highly desirable in their own right.  Being able to freely go and work in another European country expands people’s opportunities, and increases the pool of talent available to British employers.  The Schengen agreement allowing people to go from one European country to another without passport or customs checks makes life very much easier.  The euro as a common currency helps this as well.  For people living near national borders this can be really important: a journey of a couple of hours can take you from France into Belgium and Holland and then into Germany, and if you happen to fancy a cup of coffee or a snack as you go along it is really helpful not have to carry four different currencies.  Thus a number of things which are presented to us as threatening in one way or another are actually highly practical solutions to everyday problems.

The issue of free movement links to that of asylum seekers and immigration.  This requires lengthy and careful discussion, much of which concerns economic development in poor countries, the origin of civil wars, the benefits of immigration matched with some strains in parts of the country, etc.  However, it is almost certainly better addressed in the framework of the European Union than outside it.

More needs to be said on the subject of red tape.  A market needs to be constructed and fostered rather than simply found.  So specifying that things should be sold by the kilogram or laying down regulations about food hygiene or permissible additives may be irritating red tape in one sense, but if it permits consumers to compare products and to be confident that they are not being slowly poisoned, it facilitates a market across national boundaries.  If you are going to be bound by regulations of this sort, it seems to make good sense to be able to play a part in designing them.

Not all of the above is a socialist case, but much of it is really important for ordinary working people.

A final comment on what might be called Labour Affairs depression.  The British advocacy of neoliberal ideas which so distressed the writers of the March editorial looks, on the strength of the above commentary on David Cameron’s reform package, to be highly ineffective in changing European Union.  On the other hand, the German model for industrial cooperation which allows working people a degree of control over the running of industry, or schemes on those lines such as that proposed in the Bullock Report of 1974, are a highly desirable way forward.  Proposals on these lines have been consistently advocated by people associated with Labour Affairs for many years.  It is a strange position to think that it does not matter whether or not we are part of the European Union, when membership brings us closer to the Germans, who manage a strong, low-unemployment economy in this way.