Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

A social democrats’ Europe

The single market was the social democratic alternative to the rise of Thatcherism and the decline of the Warsaw Pact, David Miliband reminds Labour comrades

I once asked Jacques Delors, former French finance minister and former president of the European Commission, why he had not run for president of France. ‘Because I am a social democrat, and there are only three social democrats in France’ was his playful (and rueful) reply. He went on to explain that France had statists, of left and right, but too few people who appreciated the importance and integrity of the social market economy. By this he meant a market economy that embodied values of fairness and dignity in all of its functioning, and not just as an afterthought. 

Delors was the father of Europe’s ‘social’ single market. It was the summit of his achievement in demarcating the reformist, practical and useful left from the revolutionary, utopian and useless left. It is rare for an opposition party to have the chance to be practical and useful in its impact on legislation, but in the case of the debate about Brexit the divisions within the Conservative mean that Labour has responsibility as well as opportunity. We should heed the lessons of Delors today as we debate whether and how to stand up for the single market’s central role in guaranteeing rights, living standards and protections for and to working people. 

The European single market is much more than a market. It is a bulwark for values and rights not just a forum for trading. That is why being ‘in’ the single market is different from having ‘access’ to it. Recognising this is key to understanding why free marketeers are so desperate to get out of the single market. It also makes it hard – inexplicable really – to understand the ‘Lexit’ (so-called leftwing exit from the EU) determination to submit to this demand, or resistance to opposing it. The protections that the single market offers far outstrip the limits it places on progressive government.

Britain joined what was then the European Economic Community when the United States was in a period of convulsion and retreat, when Russia was hostile, when global order (like the Breton Woods economic consensus) seemed to be fragmenting. Sound familiar? Europe was part of the answer then because it offered safety in numbers. Today, not only is Europe wider, with 28 members, but global developments are making a hard Brexit more risky by the week, with the danger of a post-Brexit economic race to the bottom that much more real. In a world where autocrats are on the march, where capital has increasing power and trade unions are on the defensive, where the climate crisis is advancing fast, membership of the European single market is not just an economic advantage for Britain. It is a social advantage for British citizens. The reason is simple: it was built that way.

For Delors, the idea of preserving and extending the market economy while staving off the dangers of a market society, was core to his politics. It should also be for us. A devout Christian, Delors forged his politics in the creation of a ‘second left’ in France in the 1960s and 1970s, rejecting the Marxist rigidities that had previously dominated French left-of-centre politics (and trade unionism). As finance minister is the first post-war French socialist government – under Francois Mitterrand – he had seen the collapse of the commitment to ‘socialism in one country’. The historic alignment of French left-of-centre politics with European social democracy was in part Delors’ creation.

Delors brought this philosophy to his leadership of the European Commission at a particularly important time, spanning the rise of Thatcherism and the collapse of the Warsaw Pact. Margaret Thatcher determined to create a single market. Delors embraced the idea, but on his terms: a market was only legitimate and sustainable if it advanced social, as well as economic, goals. And he advanced this idea as Labour in the 1980s was ridding itself of the Euroscepticism that had led its 1983 manifesto to call for withdrawal from the EEC. 

This was the backdrop to Delors’ keynote speech at the Trades Union Congress in 1988. And the text shows why it is foolhardy to denigrate the single market today. Delors situated the Single European Act in global terms: its purpose was to ‘preserve and enhance the uniquely European model of society’. For him this meant one thing above all others: ‘Cooperation and solidarity as well as competition are the conditions for our common success … It would be unacceptable for the unfair practices to distort the interplay of economic forces. It would be unacceptable for Europe to become a source of social regression.’

That is why Delors explained to the TUC that his version of the Single European Act had at its core ‘guaranteed social rights’, which became the social chapter of the Maastricht treaty; laws on company statute to build in worker bargaining; and rights to lifelong education. As Delors said in his speech: ‘1992 is much more than the creation of an internal market’. No wonder they sang ‘Frere Jacques’ after he finished. 

The single market incorporates social rights, including employee protection, rights to holiday and rights to collective bargaining. There are allied regulatory standards that uphold high standards of environmental protection. Health and safety protections that uphold a balance between labour and capital. This is more a race to the top – not to the bottom.

Today the single market is the most integrated market in the world. It facilitates trade across borders for goods and, to some extent, for services. It is a huge boon for Britain. If you want post Brexit trade to be ‘frictionless’, the single market plus customs union is the only way to get it. As Martin Wolf pointed out in a column in the Financial Times in July 2017, the deeper the economic integration, the bigger the impact on trade. He points out trade within countries, which by definition is the most integrated arrangement of all, is far greater than geography alone would suggest. Borders create blockages. And he cites a warning to those who talk in sanguine terms of shifting from EU to World Trade Organisation terms for trade: a World Bank study argued that if the United Kingdom shifted from EU to WTO terms, trade in goods with the EU would halve and trade in services would fall 60 per cent.

These are the stakes as the Brexit debate is stripped down to its essentials. Unbelievably, the government has managed to put off for 650 days since the referendum the evil day of confronting the consequences of its choices about Brexit. The transition period of March 2019 to December 2020, and now the debate about a ‘backstop’, buy time, but do not change the fundamental choice: to cleave to Europe’s wealth and social model as a safe harbour in a dangerous world, or to roll the dice on partners further away. With only around 100 working days until the fateful European Council in October that must complete the negotiations, the divisions inside the government seem to be increasing the chances of a disastrous no deal, or a hard withdrawal from the customs union and the single market, or an almost-as-bad fudged deal, where Brexit takes place with key decisions punted into the future.

It did not need to be this way. Even Brexiteer member of the European parliament Daniel Hannan is now pining for a rerun of history where the referendum result is taken as an order to forge compromise on the method of Brexit. But the prime minister’s decision to lash herself to the mast of withdrawal from the EU customs union and single market has rendered her other commitments, notably about the Irish border, undeliverable. That creates the possibility of a defeat for the government, if Labour gets its act together. The fact that the prime minister of Norway, the largest of three current members of the European Economic Area (which incorporates the single market), says she would welcome British participation, and that it would strengthen the EEA’s negotiating clout, only sharpens the point. 

My belief is that the conduct of the negotiations since 2016, the new data that has emerged, and the changing global context make it right to argue that the people should have a final chance to accept or reject the Brexit that is negotiated (as opposed to the Brexit of dreams that was presented in the referendum campaign). As Chuka Umunna has said, just because you put in an offer on a house, there is no requirement to buy it if the survey turns up new facts.

But that case cannot preclude a good faith effort to protect British people from hard Brexit. If Labour gets the chance to vote to stay in the single market, the lesson of history is clear that it must do so. The alternative is for Jeremy Corbyn to be the midwife of hard Brexit.


David Miliband is former foreign secretary. He writes in a personal capacity. He tweets @DMiliband


Photo: by Remi Jouan, licensed under CC-BY-SA-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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David Miliband

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