My Labour colleague Natascha Engel is quite right to highlight the progressive role of the European Union in protecting and enhancing British workers’ rights.
She is also right to worry about the apparent rise of the far-right, both in the United Kingdom and elsewhere. I share her concerns, as do democrats across our continent.
But her argument gets a little murkier when she tries to predict the future, and she ends up falling for a few too many anti-European clichés.
Some of these missteps are understandable. She repeats the old myth that British people were voting solely for a trading agreement when they endorsed European Economic Community membership in 1975. To see through this myth, we have to go back and look at what was actually said in the press and in parliament at the time of the 1975 referendum. In fact, national newspapers and politicians alike were crystal-clear that what was envisaged was a political union as well as an economic one – a point Natascha herself concedes later on, when she writes that the European project ‘began with a vision of a political union for a peaceful Europe’. Indeed, Britain was already part of the European Free Trade Association, and we chose to leave it and join the EEC precisely because we recognised that free trade alone was not enough.
Other errors are rather more bewildering. She thinks the EU is ‘unaccountable’ and ‘indirectly elected’. In fact, for any proposal to become law at European level, it must be approved by both elected members of the European parliament and elected national governments in the Council. Both these institutions are patently accountable to the electorate – MEPs very obviously directly so.
And she makes a similarly strange claim when she says that ‘people have never been consulted, have never had the chance to vote on [Europe], and told that this is what is best for them’. Yet the UK’s role in Europe has been an issue in every general election for the past four decades, and the electorate has delivered its verdict every time – and that is setting aside the obvious fact that we have specifically European elections every five years. If this is what she defines as ‘never being consulted’, then we have never been consulted on anything in the history of our country!
So I am happy to reassure Natascha. It is simply not possible for Europe to ‘dictate to us’, as she fears. Europe is not some distant, alien power; we, along with our like-minded democratic neighbours, are Europe. Where we all recognise that we have common interests with neighbouring countries, we make our decisions jointly and democratically.
Of course, the risk of unsavoury politicians getting elected is part and parcel of living in a democracy. But, fortunately, democracy also offers us a way to eliminate this risk – and it works at every level, from local councils to European institutions. If you do not want far-right politicians representing you, do not vote for them.
Richard Corbett MEP is deputy leader of the British Labour members of the European parliament
Photo: European Parliament
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