The left needs more focus on the EU

27th October, 2011 4:02 pm

Osborne to cut paid holidays to boost growth.”

It’s not too difficult to imagine that headline, given the current government. They have already proposed to help employers to sack workers, made it harder to take employers to tribunal and threatened maternity leave. So what’s stopping them going further?

The answer, of course, is an EU law. Though many workers are still unaware of it, many of our rights at work, including our right to paid holiday, are guaranteed by laws at EU level. So it’s not really very surprising that Cameron has targeted this area for a “repatriation of powers,” as he puts it. The rhetoric is all about national sovereignty; the intentions are all economic.

David Cameron and George Osborne have made it clear they think the best way to grow the economy is to drive down standards and undercut our neighbours. They want to see a Europe of competition, made up of small, open economies, subject to the whims of globalisation. In Cameron’s Europe, governments are reluctant to raise social or environmental standards, fearing they will lose out in the great race for international capital. It’s a race to the bottom. The Prime Minister wants to keep the EU rules which protect the single market, but remove the ones which protect people.

That is exactly the kind of Europe that the EU’s social laws are meant to prevent. They have created a Europe of solidarity. This Europe has an economy big enough and self-reliant enough to stand up to globalisation – as long as it cooperates to set common social and environment standards. It can achieve things that states in competition with each other never could: high employment standards, emissions targets, consumer rights, restrictions on bankers’ bonuses, a proposed financial transaction tax. We simply wouldn’t have these policies if we hadn’t been prepared to cooperate in the EU. No wonder Cameron wants those powers back.

Of course, EU laws can be used to liberalise as well as to regulate, and in recent years, the balance has been skewed towards the former. Under a right-wing European Commission, EU Directives have led to privatisation of public services whilst the Commission has promoted austerity as a response to the economic crisis. The EU’s critics on the left are growing louder, selectively citing lists of right-wing policies to show that “the EU” is hopelessly neo-liberal. In response, the pro-European left cites an equally selective list of left-wing EU policies. Repeat.

They are all missing the point. What “the EU” does depends on the politicians we’ve got making the decisions. Last month, for example, when “the EU” brought in new economic legislation amounting to yet more austerity, it was pushed by right-wing Commission president Barroso against the will of Socialist MEPs. When “the EU” failed to agree on a stricter climate change target, it was because Tory MEPs blocked it. More strikingly still, when “the EU” completed the single market in the 1980s, arguably its biggest proponent was Margaret Thatcher. The EU political system is just like the one we’ve got in the UK: when the wrong people are in control of the institutions, the wrong policies are what we get.

So we need to concentrate our energies on gaining influence in the EU institutions, through electoral and non-electoral means. It is true that the EU isn’t perfectly democratic, and we should call for reform. But we can make a huge difference through elections to the European Parliament in 2014, and through our choice of Socialist candidate for the next President of the European Commission.

And we need to direct our criticism. If we always blame “the EU” for decisions made by right-wing politicians, we will get nowhere. The left needs to focus, or Cameron’s Europe could become a reality sooner than we think.

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  • Good post. 

    I disagree, however, in that Cameron’s Europe will become a reality. Cameron has alienated himself from the EPP and the agenda will continue to be set (until at least 2014) by the EPP. Cameron’s fringe group does not hold much sway in the European Parliament. Though I do agree with you that austerity is the economic model of choice. Not that Labour was completely against austerity when in government. 

    • Anonymous

      That is so true….

    • Thanks Ust.

      You’re right that the Tories have rather isolated themselves. But we still need to win more MEPs than they and UKIP are winning, so that we can shift the overall balance in favour of the Socialists. And of course that’s only in the European Parliament – conservative governments hold sway in the Council and have a majority of Commissioners. Lots of work to do…

  • Pingback: The Left needs more focus on the EU | kieronam()

  • Plhllyrd

    It seems strange that the Tories accepted the newAgency Working Regulations with effect from 1st October given their hatred of this type of regulation and which came from European legislation.
    Another area where New Labour let down the British worker, they should have brought this in.

  • Anonymous

    “So what’s stopping them going further?”

    Well I guess democracy stops them: cutting basic holiday entitlement would be political suicide, and even if the Tory party was somehow able to persuade both their MPs and their Orange Book friends to vote in sufficient numbers for this to pass (which seems pretty unlikely – most MPs would fear for their political lives too much to allow their fingerprints on appear such a plan), THEN past the Lords without objection (also unlikely), the next election (which may well come early, should something so unpopular make its way onto the statute book) would provide an opportunity to redress this balance and right such a obvious wrong.

    If that this the fundamental basis of this article then I’m not sure the rest of it hangs together… 

    • And pissing off basically every single 16-18 year old was so smart?
      Cameron is no Thatcher.

      • Anonymous

        Cameron will indeed reap the benefit of his decisions on EMA as well as the NHS, university fees etc. at the next election, but I don’t think you can really compare withdrawing the entitlement to a minimum level of holidays to the entitlement to a free wad of cash for going to school…

    • It’s not the fundamental basis of the article. It was the introduction. And it was just one example out of hundreds of possible ones. It was an extreme example, designed to catch attention of course, but one which illustrates the point well. As I said, they have already dabbled with attacking maternity leave for the same reasons. And it remains the case that we didn’t have an entitlement to paid holiday until it was introduced in European law in the late 90s.

      The fundamental basis of the article is that, rather than criticising “the EU” as if it’s some great black box that spews out directives, they should criticise the politicians who have done whatever it is they object to. And indeed support the politicians who do the things they like. That way people might well realise we can get the EU to do the things we want it to, by winning more elections and controlling the political institutions – just like we do in the UK.

      • Anonymous

        “…as if it’s some great black box that spews out directives…”

        Sadly that is exactly how it appears to many of us in the UK.  I suggest any arguments which want to convert the silent majority start by explaining just how that is not true…

  • David Lindsay

    Calling the referendum “a device of demagogues and dictators” was Thatcher’s only ever favourable quotation of a Labour Prime Minister. Yet to those who worship at Thatcher’s altar while wholly ignoring her record on this and so much else, the demand for that deeply flawed and wholly foreign device has become a nervous tick. They honestly cannot see how Pythonesque it is to demand a referendum in the cause of defending parliamentary sovereignty. The Lisbon Treaty is self-amending, so there can never be another treaty. What is needed is an amendment suggesting legislation with five simple clauses.
    First, the restoration of the supremacy of British over EU law, and its use to repatriate agricultural policy and to restore our historic fishing rights in accordance with international law. Secondly, the requirement that, in order to have any effect in the United Kingdom, all EU law pass through both Houses of Parliament as if it had originated in one or other of them. Thirdly, the requirement that British Ministers adopt the show-stopping Empty Chair Policy until such time as the Council of Ministers meets in public and publishes an Official Report akin to Hansard. Fourthly, the disapplication in the United Kingdom of any ruling of the European Court of Justice or of the European Court of Human Rights (or of the Supreme Court) unless confirmed by a resolution of the House of Commons.
    And fifthly, the disapplication in the United Kingdom of anything passed by the European Parliament but not by the majority of those MEPs certified as politically acceptable by one or more seat-taking members of the House of Commons. Thus, we would no longer subject to the legislative will of Stalinists and Trotskyists, neo-Fascists and neo-Nazis, members of Eastern Europe’s kleptomaniac nomenklatura, neoconservatives such as now run France and Germany, people who believe the Provisional Army Council to be the sovereign body throughout Ireland, or Dutch ultra-Calvinists who will not have women candidates. Soon to be joined by Turkey’s Islamists, secular ultranationalists, and violent Kurdish Marxist separatists.
    This calls for a Labour three-line whip in favour of it and the public warning that the Whip would be withdrawn from any remaining Blairite ultra who failed to comply. The Liberal Democrats set great store by decentralisation, transparency and democracy, and they represent many areas badly affected by the Common Fisheries Policy. The Liberals were staunch free traders who were as opposed the Soviet Bloc as they were to Far Right regimes in Latin America and Southern Africa, while the SDP’s reasons for secession from Labour included both calls for protectionism and the rise of antidemocratic extremism. (Both the Liberal Party and, on a much smaller scale, the SDP still exist, and both are now highly critical of the EU.)
    The SDLP takes the Labour Whip, the Alliance Party is allied to the Lib Dems, the Greens are staunchly anti-EU, so is the DUP, and the one other Unionist is close to Labour. The SNP and Plaid Cymru can hardly believe in independence for Scotland, greater autonomy for Wales, yet vote against the return to Westminster of the powers that they wish to transfer thence to Edinburgh or Cardiff; the SNP also has the fishing issue to consider. Even any remaining Conservatives who wanted to certify the European People’s Party as politically acceptable might be brought on board.
    Leaving those fabled creatures, backbench Tory Eurosceptics. It is high time that their bluff was called. This is how to do it.
    Ed Miliband, over to you.

  • Anonymous

    The working regulations for doctors was much needed yet labour fought it tooth and nail, I was once given an injection into the spine, and the doctor started and then he stopped the nurse had to get another doctor , because the first one was fast asleep he’d worked 40 hours straight.

    •  Yea, Treborc, funny how the well known issue of cognitive decay (mistakes due to tiredness) for working over forty hours a week was utterly ignored for doctors.

      For flip sake, it’s been known in studies since 1908 (arguably 1907!)

      • This is what the Working Time Directive is for, putting a limit on long working hours. The Government is currently saying that limiting doctors’ working hours is “damaging” the NHS. That says a lot about their point of view.

  • polarii

    “The rhetoric is about national sovereignty, his intentions are economic.”

    Surely these are inter-related anyway? Sovereignty is tied to both economic and political independence, and whether you agree with Cameron about reducing workers’ rights or not, there is very little disjoint between rhetoric and intent. While the EU may protect certain workers rights, it is a surrender of sovereignty and, to a very limited extent, economic independence for the UK.

    “Europe has an economy big enough and self-reliant enough to stand up to globalisation.”

    I think the current Eurozone crisis, which includes most of Europe’s economy, demonstrates that Europe is not especially well-placed in the global context. And even if it did, isn’t globalisation invited by the brotherhood of all men? Why does it need to be stood up to?

    “The EU’s critics on the left are getting louder.”

    Maybe moving from silent to barely audible? No-one noticed the 20-or-so MPs that rebelled against Miliband’s 3-line whip. Gone are the days when Labour was the Eurosceptic party, methinks.

    “The EU brought in legislation amounting to yet more austerity.”

    As did every political party in the Western World. The Democrats, the Tories, The Danish Socialists, the Australian Labor, the NZ Nationals, the French UMP, the Portugese Socialists… If you’re going to criticise any political group for bringing in austerity, perhaps you should remember Ed Miliband wrote a manifesto that cut 2.5% of GDP from government spending in 4 years….

  • By the time the Tories got into office, it was too late for them to reverse the decision. There is usually a delay of two years or so between an EU directive being agreed, and it being brought into national laws. The AWD went through a very long process at EU level and was finally agreed by governments and MEPs, all whilst Labour was in power in the UK. (Although I doubt the UK Government was very supportive of it even then.)

  • Hi David,

    Thanks for your response. Let me go through some of these points:

    1. On making English/Scottish law “supreme” over EU law. There are two problems with this. The first one, is that it already is. EU laws (usually Directives) don’t actually have any effect at all on you or me. In order to have effect in the UK, the Government has to introduce a Bill in the UK Parliament, and it has to be passed just like any other law.  Only the UK Parliament (and the devolved assemblies) have the power to legislate here. The European Parliament has no power whatsoever to introduce, change or repeal any national laws.

    The second problem, is that the whole point of the EU is to make common rules. There are some areas where EU member states decide that it’s not enough to act alone, so they act together by making common legislation. (And NB EU legislation doesn’t come out of “the EU” in isolation – it all has to be agreed by MEPs, who we elect directly, and also by national governments, who send their ministers to the Council of Ministers to discuss them.) If you’re suggesting that the UK Parliament should just be able to go back on any of its agreements at any time, without trying to change the EU law through the proper process, then really you’re just advocating that we leave the EU.

    2. On the requirement that all EU law goes through both Houses of Parliament before it comes into force in the UK, just like any other law. This is happily already the case (see my answer to point 1). In fact, not just that, but both Houses of Parliament between them scrutinise pretty much every document that comes out of EU institutions in special committees. On top of this, when a new EU law is proposed, if a sufficient number of national parliaments across the EU think that it is something that shouldn’t be done at EU level, then they can ask the Commission to withdraw it.

    3. Your point on the Council of Ministers is a very good one. As I said, the EU isn’t perfectly democratic and this is one reform that is badly needed. Unfortunately, the ‘Empty Chair’ policy wouldn’t work, and hasn’t worked for a long time. Not least because many decisions in the Council of Ministers are now decided by QMV, not by unanimity. (And of course, it was national governments that decided to do this, as decision-making in an EU of 27 member states was becoming too slow…)

    4. On the ECHR. Firstly, as many of us keep saying, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has *nothing* to do with the EU. Nothing, nada, niente. That’s a totally different treaty, a totally different kind of international law, and nothing to do with any EU institution.

    On the ECJ, the European Court of Justice has only one function, and one alone, and that is to determine if a Member State is applying European law correctly.  Cases are only ever brought by the European Commission, and the defendants are only ever the Member State governments.  (Well, actually individuals can bring a case to the ECJ too against an EU institution if they feel they’ve been wronged by it.) It’s best not to confuse the ECJ with the ECHR.

    As for having national Parliaments approve the ECJ’s decisions – the ECJ is an independent court of law, and the point of having it is to resolve disputes independently and fairly. Just like any court of law. It would be absurd if you said the House of Commons should have to approve each decision of the Supreme Court here in the UK, because then you would be taking away that independence. The same applies to the ECJ.

    5. On disapplying decisions if they are supported by unacceptable political groups… The most obvious point to make here is that quite a lot of those “unacceptable” types are voted for by UK voters. There are some BNP MEPs and plenty of UKIP MEPs. The next point to make is that none of these groups are in the majority. The vast majority of MEPs are in the mainstream groups: EPP (centre-right), Socialist, liberal. Then you get slightly smaller groups, the ECR (which includes the Tories), the greens, the far left, and the eurosceptics – but they are just a small proportion of the whole Parliament. So in practice you would find that, even if we applied your rule, it wouldn’t have any effect on the decisions made.


  • Anonymous

    A good article about what the left should stand for on the EU.  A social market rather than a free market. 


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