Richard Corbett: The British left should lead in resisting Brexit

Richard Corbett

I was shocked the other day to hear a friend say that comrades wanting a soft Brexit, or no Brexit, are Blairite. It’s utter rubbish.

In fact, Tony Blair resisted many EU proposals to strengthen legislation that protects workers across Europe, was hardly an enthusiast for using the institution to fight tax avoidance by multinational companies and opposed the idea of adopting the financial transactions tax, or Tobin tax, across the continent. Trades unions and Labour MEPs clashed repeatedly with Downing Street during his tenure when it attempted to loosen the working time directive. At the time, I wrote a pamphlet Labour: leader or laggard in Europe?

Like Britain, the EU isn’t perfect. Outcomes at EU level, just as at national level, are the result of political battles. But our economic and environmental interdependence with our neighbouring countries makes winning such battles at European level vital – and Brexit endangers that.

One reason that neo-liberals and right-wing Tories dislike the EU single market so much is that it has rules to protect consumers, workers and the environment. Common rules for the common market are essential: as socialists, we know the damage an unregulated free-for-all can do to the economy, to the environment, and to people. The rules we already have need improvement – that’s a battle Labour MEPs in the Socialist group in the European Parliament fight daily – but they are still significant enough to send the neo-liberal right apoplectic.

The EU also weakens a favourite neo-liberal tactic – to say Britain can’t do X or Y because no-one else will and so our competitive position will be undermined. They used this very argument to resist regulating bankers’ bonuses in Britain, until the EU put a limit on bankers’ bonuses across the whole of Europe – thanks in no small part to the work of Labour MEPs.

Tories hate all this. They have frequently attacked protective common rules, not least in the so-called social chapter: legislation that provides for parental leave, a right to a paid holiday, protection of contract rights and unfair dismissal (the TUPE regulations), and health and safety rules. Some Tories support Brexit precisely because they want to weaken or repeal such rules. They want to trigger a race to the bottom, in which neighbouring countries try to compete by lowering standards.

Of course, most of our key political choices are entirely a national matter. How we organise education, healthcare, housing, pensions, social security, income tax, devolution, housing, defence, and much else besides, are scarcely touched by what we agree at EU level. This means that the key tools for building a fairer society (including, crucially, redistribution of wealth and the provision of universal public services) are decided at home, not in the EU. The EU treaty also specifies that the question of ownership – public or private – is a matter for member states to decide.

But some important matters are best decided at European level – where it has the potential to be more effective. This is often the case for consumer protection rules, workplace rights, regulating multinationals, and environmental standards. And EU consumer protection rules, including on the safety of chemicals and pharmaceuticals, often set the standard for other countries across the world, as they need to follow them for their exports to the EU as the world’s largest market. The EU agenda now, at last, includes measures to fight tax evasion and tax avoidance by companies that transfer profits to low tax jurisdictions, where a study by the Socialist group in the European Parliament concluded that the total government revenue lost across Europe through tax evasion and avoidance is greater than all the budget deficits of all European countries. Brexit means weakening our ability to act on such issues.

The EU can also sometimes give us more leverage in the wider world. The EU has more clout than individual countries in standing up to the restrictive practices of multinational companies, as it has done with Google, Microsoft, Gazprom, Deutsche Bank and many others.

It also has more clout in trade negotiations, where it outweighs what its member countries can achieve individually – both in terms of securing export opportunities and in terms of resisting unwanted pressures. The bilateral UK-US agreement Liam Fox is seeking will mean Britain accepting US standards that allow chlorinated chickens, hormones in beef. It will also mean Britain accepting those TTIP proposals that the EU has so far resisted.

Of course, we don’t win every political battle in Europe. But it is almost impossible to construct a majority in the European Parliament (which approves European legislation, usually after amending it) without the support of its Socialist group.

Where the EU is more vulnerable to criticism is in non-legislative matters, typically dealt with inter-governmentally. One example is the terms of the bailout loans to Greece. These were not, strictly speaking, EU loans, in that they came not from the EU budget but from the IMF and from eurozone governments. It was the creditors who called the shots, not just the German finance ministry, but also the several eurozone countries that are poorer than Greece, who baulked at giving a third bailout to a country despite it already having had half of its debt written off.

There is no doubt that this should have been better handled, but is also worth recalling that the bulk of Greece’s massive debt – well above that of any other European country – was nothing to do with borrowing to invest, nor with counter-cyclical Keynesian policies. It was due to a notable failure to tax the rich combined with bad management, out of control spending, for example its unnecessarily high military spending, and unwise choices like financing large pay rises for government officials by borrowing. And holding a referendum on whether other countries should continue to pay for you was hardly likely to persuade them to do so. There is blame on both sides here.

Despite shortcomings, European-level co-operation is beneficial. And for Britain, the fact that the rest of the EU is by far our biggest trading partner is of vital importance. Tearing ourselves out of the EU single market and customs union will be a costly and damaging exercise. There is no advantage to the left from Brexit. Inflation up, investment down, rights and protections for workers and citizens at risk, safety and environment degraded. The poorest will be hurt the most. The hit to public finances will make the funding of Labour’s programmes more difficult.

As Jeremy Corbyn said: “The Labour Party is overwhelmingly for staying in, because we believe the European Union has brought: investment, jobs and protection for workers, consumers and the environment, and offers the best chance of meeting the challenges we face in the twenty-first century.”

The left should be leading on this, not allowing ourselves to be dragged along by a neo-liberal Tory agenda.

Richard Corbett is MEP for Yorkshire and Humber.

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