Time to make the case
This week marks 40 years since Britain joined the European Union. This anniversary should make progressives reflect on exactly why it is right for the UK to be in the EU, the benefits British people have derived from our membership, the economic and social successes, and how it has helped transform our place in the world. But it should also make us reflect on the many years of denigration the EU as an institution has suffered in the British press, the failure of many politicians and other sections of British society to sufficiently make the positive case and case for reform of this unique organisation, one which is now under unprecedented strain in an economic crisis which did not begin with, and is not confined to, the EU. If 2012 was a year in which the idea that the UK could conceivably leave the EU became common currency, the next period in the run-up to the 2014 European elections and the 2015 general election will be the most pivotal period in the history of our membership.
It is likely that this intense period will be kicked off with a speech by David Cameron on 15 January in which he is set to finally lay out the government’s or at least the Conservative party’s position on a referendum on our membership of the EU. Readers of this set of articles will know well the political drivers behind what Cameron is likely to say. The Conservative party the electoral threat from UKIP in its marginal seats is real, and the British public, exposed to years of negative EU headlines and indifferent leadership on Europe, sees the economic crises in EU countries as one important reason for their recent spike in hostility towards the EU. The economic benefits of the single market which has historically guaranteed majority poll support for membership has badly suffered as a perceived plus as a result of the crisis in parts of the eurozone. It has opened the way, fairly or not, for greater acceptance of Eurosceptic attacks on the EU, which are increasingly hitting home in the absence of a mature and long-standing positive British narrative for our membership. In his speech Cameron is likely to talk about ‘renegotiation’ of our membership and ‘progress’ on his audit of competences to be repatriated to Britain. Much has been said about exactly what or how much could be ‘renegotiated’ or ‘repatriated’. All roads, however, will lead ultimately to a promise of some form of referendum sooner or later. That means the timid option for progressives, of favouring our membership of the EU but never articulating the reasons why, is no longer an option.
The narrative which has been lost is that the EU has worked successfully and cooperatively in the British interest on jobs and the single market, and attracting inward investment, on protecting the environment and tackling climate change, on consumer protection, tackling cross border crime and protecting victims of crime, on social and employment rights and protecting the citizen against multinational and monopoly power. The EU can work better for citizens through cross-border cooperation where countries working on their own cannot provide that added value. The recent Victims of Crime Directive, partly inspired by the real life example of a young British man attacked in Greece on holiday whose campaigning mother, Maggie Hughes, called for an EU-wide law which would provide for victim support services in all 27 member states, is a good, recent and relevant example.
The positive narrative can also be about the type of Europe we want to belong to – when Labour discusses new policy on technical training, regional policy and the living wage and rebalancing our economy away from financial services towards engineering or discussion of business banks – we are talking about German social democratic models, and a country and sister party who want us as partners and not isolated with the potential for a neoliberal future outside the EU.
All this also means not pretending that only politicians will be able to make the arguments for Europe. Those who have a stake in what good the EU has delivered – trade unions, British industry, civil society, NGOs, the voluntary sector and the arts will need to say what has been delivered and what can be lost – employment laws won for trade unions and workers, tariff-free trade, and inward investment for British business, jobs for both.
This new period in the run-up to the European and general elections leaves progressives with no choice but to abandon what the last British secretary-general of the European parliament Julian Priestley called a ‘state of quietism since the 1975 Referendum’ and speak up. The pieces on ProgressOnline today are examples of the positive case that must be made for the EU – in the weeks and months ahead I hope Labour party members will fight for the UK’s continued membership of the EU – but more importantly for Labour’s progressive vision of our place in Europe.
Claude Moraes is MEP for London and guest-editor of ProgressOnline today. He tweets @ClaudeMoraesMEP
Claude Moraes, EU, Europe