Comment Is Free: The left must call the right’s bluff – and challenge the EU
The fallout from David Cameron’s “non” once again reveals one of the big myths of British politics. All critics of the European Union in its current form are swivel-eyed Little Englanders, the sorts of people who leave comments on online forums assailing “lefties”, immigrants and the “great climate change swindle”. Or think Jacob Rees-Mogg, the sort of Tory MP who exists to make sure Labour’s core vote comes out on election day, who declared that Cameron was the toast of Somerset. That’s your classic EU critic, or so the uncritical pro-EU liberal lobby would have us believe.
The depressing debate on the EU treaty has focused on how the rightwing backbenchers of a Conservative party that failed to win the general election are more powerful than zealously pro-European Liberal Democrat government ministers. The Lib Dems have swallowed just about every dose of Tory poison – swingeing cuts, the VAT hike, trebling tuition fees, privatising the NHS, and so on – so it wasn’t inconceivable they’d back this too. But uncritically propping up the most Eurosceptic government ever proved too ludicrous even for this rag-tag bunch of opportunists, and Nick Clegg went from accepting the deal to synthetic outrage within 48 hours (when it was too late, of course).
All the criticisms have focused on Cameron abandoning Britain’s place at the negotiating table. Those on the left should have no truck with Cameron’s position. It was about defending the pre-eminent power of the City, whose firms provide more than half the Conservatives’ funding. Despite empty government rhetoric about Britain going back to “making things”, the City still calls the shots.
But that does not mean the left should be applauding the EU treaty. It could hardly be more disastrous for the European left. At a stroke, it effectively abolishes social democratic governments in the eurozone. As Paul Mason put it, “by enshrining in national and international law the need for balanced budgets and near-zero structural deficits, the eurozone has outlawed expansionary fiscal policy”. Furthermore, all eurozone budgets must be submitted to the unelected European Commission for approval.
There will be those who believe that a fiscal stimulus in the current economic climate would be disastrous, and they are entitled to that view. But it is up to the people of Europe to decide at the ballot box. As Economist columnist Baghote points out, it would become “pointless” to vote for a party that advocates “Keynesian stimulus policies or tax cuts”. It’s difficult to disagree with his understated conclusion: “That feels politically very dodgy to me.”
Frightening stuff, but French Socialist presidential candidate François Hollande has handed Europe’s leftwing critics the treaty a lifeline. He has committed to renegotiating the treaty if he wins next year’s presidential elections and, as things stand, he’s the hot favourite. Among his suggestions are measures to boost growth, a bigger role for the European Central Bank, and the issuing of eurobonds. It’s certainly a start. Rather than allowing the debate to be dominated by the City, Labour’s leadership should be making common cause with its French sister party.
But more broadly, now is an opportunity for the left to stop abandoning the EU debate to Ukip and Tory rightwingers like the NHS-hating Daniel Hannan. It is a travesty that highlighting the EU’s palpable lack of democracy has become a rightwing issue. Why should European commissioners nobody elected issue diktats? Here the left can call the right’s bluff. Why not call for the abolition of the commission in favour of an administration made up of elected members of the European parliament, for example?
Successive treaties have enshrined “free competition”, which in practice promotes the privatisation of public services. Take the Lisbon treaty, which includes the following clause: “A European framework law shall establish the liberalisation of a specific service.” One of the main reasons the French people rejected the European constitution in 2005 was precisely because much of the left rejected its neoliberalism.
Want to reverse the almost universally unpopular privatisation of our railways? You’re going to have to take on EU directive 9/440 first, which makes it a legal requirement for private companies to be able to run train services. Treaties and directives that make privatisation a political necessity must be renegotiated.
The left used to have a position on the European project. After all, it was Ted Heath’s Tory government that took Britain into the European Economic Community in 1973. When Labour offered the British people a say on it in 1975, cabinet ministers were able to campaign on the basis of their conscience. Labour’s 1983 manifesto pledged withdrawal and while Neil Kinnock ended up as a European commissioner, he was once a fervent critic of the common market.
Opposing the EU as it is currently constituted doesn’t put have to put you in the same boat as Rees-Mogg, Hannan and Ukip’s Nigel Farage. Rather than backing withdrawal, the left should argue for a Europe built around the interests of working people, not major corporations. After the treaty debacle, it’s time to make the case as loudly as possible.