Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

What future for Europe?

Tony Giddens has written a great book, his best since The Third Way in my view, though the Politics of Climate Change was also very good. He takes as his theme the ‘future of Europe’, but this is no nerd-like, institutionally obsessed text. It is essentially a book about the possibilities for European social democracy in the modern world.

Giddens argues that the structures of European cooperation offer Europe’s nation states the potential for ‘sovereignty plus’ – the ability to achieve far more together than individually any nation-state can do on its own. He accepts that as a nation-state Britain could survive, perhaps happily, outside the European Union, just as Canada has not been impelled to become part of the United States.  Yet ‘sovereignty plus’ offers Britain much more. The EU is the only means by which western European politics can effectively address the great challenges of our time. And it is by addressing those challenges that Europe’s sense of purpose, mission and legitimacy can be revitalised from its present dismal state.

Giddens’ chapter titles illustrate this central argument. For example, in ‘Austerity and After’ he argues that there are no simple economist solutions to the structural transformations in technology and competition to which the whole of Europe is subject. The multifaceted policies that would make a real difference include EU actions to tackle tax havens, create a genuine digital single market, boost research and negotiate new trade deals: these will be far more significant than the marginal adjustments in fiscal policy that can be made at the level of the nation-state. Similarly ‘No More Social Model’ examines how, only with radical rethinking of our welfare states and determination to tackle the huge generational inequalities that have led to intolerable levels of youth unemployment, can Europe restore its claim to be the part of the world that best combines broadly shared prosperity with social justice and cohesion. ‘The Cosmopolitan Imperative’ rebuts those who think it is possible or desirable for our societies to close their doors to immigration, but argues for rethinking our ideas of multiculturalism. ‘Climate Change and Energy’ is an area where Europe has taken a bold lead. However, the Emissions Trading Scheme is on the brink of collapse; the EU-backed UN process of securing international agreement falters; and EU renewables targets come under criticism. The whole European approach once again needs renewal. The alternative is a reversion to nation-state inaction and complacency: the George Osborne argument that because Britain is too small on its own to make a global difference we should give up trying to take a lead. Finally, ‘The Search of Relevance’ discusses what the EU must do to make itself a force for good in a world where its economic and political weight is in decline.

For me this is an agenda about the big issues of our time that has the potential to make politics relevant once again. The weakness of nation-state social democracy is that it can no longer come up with big answers to the big questions of our age. This for me is the weakness of our present emphasis on what Westminster government can do to make a difference. Of course, in a time of austerity, rising energy prices are a huge issue for people but the only real answer to squeezed living standards is to change the structure of our economy in ways that promote more sustainable growth. A crucial part of the answer here is how we structure market capitalism at EU level. For example, if renewable investment is to become cheap and efficient, Europe needs a continental electricity grid that enables the sun and wind of the Mediterranean to generate power for northern Europe and vice versa. And for all our short-term concerns with energy prices, climate change is an existential concern for the future of humanity: if we can’t work together sensibly with our European partners to tackle it, we might as well accept we are a global irrelevance.

It is no good our national politics harking back to a ‘spirit of 1945’. To make sense to people we have to make clean break with that kind of backward-looking romanticism. That was a different world then: now, as Giddens puts it, we are part of a ‘community of fate’ with other European nations able either to work together to shape a common future, or accept that on the big issues shaping our future, politics can do little if anything to alter our prospects.

Of course the EU is in deep trouble and for the party to centre its political discourse at the present time around the idea of Europe would be problematic. But, until centre-left parties in Europe are prepared to do this, we will never break out of the limitations of the nation-state model in which European social democracy is presently trapped. And it only by putting the future of Europe at the centre of our public arguments that the EU can be reformed and re-energised. That is the challenge Giddens’ book makes to Labour’s traditional ways of thinking. The first test of whether his message is being listened to will be in the European parliament elections next year when Labour should seize the opportunity to make a pro-European case against the United Kingdom Independence party and the Conservatives. In European parliamentary election campaigns I have lived through, it would be a first!

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Roger Liddle is a spokesman on Europe in the House of Lords, former special adviser on Europe to Tony Blair, and chair of Policy Network

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Turbulent and Mighty Continent: What future for Europe?

Anthony Giddens

Polity | 224pp | £16.99

 

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Roger Liddle

is a peer, a former adviser on European affairs to Tony Blair, and chair of Policy Network

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