Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Seeing past myths about the EU

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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Richard Corbett MEP

is deputy leader of the British Labour members of the European parliament


  • If we need an EU for workers’ rights, then why bother having a Labour Party?

    The true character of the EU is shown by TTIP. Labour should bring a motion to the floor of the House rejecting that out of hand as a matter of principle, and making it clear from the outset that the Whip would be withdrawn from any MP who failed to vote in favour of that motion.

  • David, Inter-Governmental institutions, like the EU, and independent political parties, like the Labour Party, are quite different entities. We need both, together with trade unions, to see effective action on workers’ rights.
    The EU and its institutions are a political battleground every bit as much as Westminster. It is the case that on equalities and workers’ rights that the EU has commonly been much better than Tory led UK Governments. Indeed, when Newsnight interviewed delegates for last week’s Tory party conference, one of the most frequent reasons cited for wanting to leave the EU was to remove protections for workers.
    TTIP is very threatening and is very much in line with Tory thinking. We weaken the fight to change it by arguing that the battle is confined to Westminster. We have a huge need to educate the public about the role and importance of the EU, warts and all.

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