The EU: to be in or not to be in, that is the question

Let us begin our search for an answer to the question of Britain’s membership of the European Union with a stroll down memory lane.

“We are part of the community of Europe and we must do our duty as such.”

William Gladstone 1888

“If the people of Europe resolve to come together and work for mutual advantage, to exchange blessings instead of curses, they still have it in their power to sweep away the horrors and miseries which surround them, and to allow the streams of freedom, happiness and abundance to begin again their healing flow. This is the supreme opportunity, and if it be cast away, no one can predict it will ever return or what the resulting catastrophe will be. ”

Winston Churchill 1947

“It was political Europe in which we [Roy Jenkins and Ted Heath] were interested. A common market… was a vital step on the road but it was not the ultimate goal or the primary purpose”

Roy Jenkins writing about the 1975 referendum in Life at the Centre

In around two years time, the British people are to be asked to decide in a referendum on whether they want the United Kingdom to remain in or leave the EU. Do we wish to remain in the EU on the basis of changes that David Cameron has been able to secure during his negotiations with our EU partners or do we wish to leave the EU – the Brexit outcome – again on the basis of, or even despite, the Cameron changes?

The Prime Minister plans to use the intervening period to seek to secure the changes that he sees as essential in order to be able to recommend that British membership be continued. Thus far, he has been notably coy about the precise nature of these changes on the plausible basis that to clarify them would be to weaken his negotiating position.

Jeremy Corbyn does not have anything like two years if he wants to ensure that the views of the Labour Party are to have any influence on the outcome. Cameron has already embarked on his European odyssey and presumably is making some progress if only by establishing what the various EU leaders regard as negotiable and what they regard as written in stone.

What are the main policy options for the EU in the coming years?

Within the EU we see a wide spectrum of views on what the political structure in Europe ought to be, ranging from the goal of a United States of Europe (USE) at one end to an arrangement that is pretty well what we have now, that is a free trade area buttressed or hampered according to taste by a common currency.

The quote from Roy Jenkins makes it pretty clear where he and Ted Heath stood on the matter back in 1975. However, it was for the latter option that I thought I was voting for at the time, but without the common currency which was bolted on some years later, to the chagrin of John Major and Norman Lamont.

The debate is already under way as advocates of the various stances take to the media. It seems that Jeremy Corbyn is a committed “don’t know” – a perfectly reasonable position, given that he has only just started his new job, and given the various very real crises currently raging in and just outside the EU.

In no special order these include:

  • The Greek question – the Grexit – how to deal with countries which either cannot or will not comply with their economic obligations.
  • The migration question – how to deal with the pressures created by the understandable wish of many millions now outside the EU to enter it by whatever means are available.
  • The Vladimir Putin question – how should the EU respond to the actions of Russia in the Ukraine and other sensitive areas?
  • How to reconcile the views of the USE supporters with those of the advocates of the much looser approach with an uneasy tension between the two camps.
  • For those in the latter camp – how to halt and then put into sharp reverse the process whereby power is siphoned off from the nation states to Brussels.

Is there a plausible alternative to membership of the European Parliament via party list? This particular democratic model has no great appeal to UK voters if the outcome of the vote on proportional representation was anything to go by.

A tricky issue close to home is that the SNP is in favour of an independent Scotland remaining in the EU – a perfectly respectable policy, but one that presents all sorts of problems to mainly English parties seeking to retain Scotland within the UK.

“Europe can survive only if it splits in two”

Headline above a column by Danny Finkelstein, The Times, September 2, 2015

The sub heading to this was: “Cameron must push for the troubled eurozone to be become a super state and the UK to be part of a looser trading bloc.”

The gist of Lord Finkelstein’s piece, which made use of the ideas put forward by David Owen in his book Europe Restructured, was that: “The Prime Minister should argue for a community restructured into two parts: the eurozone and the single market. The eurozone – the Union – would acquire, in addition to the powers the EU already has, much greater fiscal control.”

He added: “These negotiations are the big opportunity for Eurosceptics who want to be in Europe but not run by Europe.

So far, so very clear. Ought the Labour Party to argue to stay in? If the answer is a provisional yes, subject to significant changes to the existing arrangements, what significant changes?

“Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery. The blossom is blighted, the leaf is withered, the God of day goes down upon the dreary scene, and in short you are forever floored.”

David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

Thus Mr Micawber, thus Greece. And many millions of our fellow citizens.

The Greek question raises some key questions and Labour needs to be in a position to answer them.

Should countries which can’t pay their way be ejected from the eurozone, or even the EU? If not, who foots the bill to bridge the gap between the debt incurred and the funds to pay?

Might a whip round among the other eurozone members to ease the extent of Greek difficulties make matters worse rather improve them, in that it might persuade other eurozone members that run into financial difficulties to default as the easy option?

We need to explain with more clarity than has been available thus far the paradox whereby Greece has been and continues to be prepared to accept humiliations and externally imposed austerities in order to remain within the eurozone while powerful voices within the UK argue that Britain would have a better future outside.

One German view that the idea seems to be that the Germans will work until they are 70 in order to enable the Greeks to retire at 55. To what extent is there any substance to such concerns?

On the migration question, there are two issues, one being the free movement of labour within the EU and the other being immigration from outside the EU into it. The former is a settled issue for most EU countries with only the UK not being in favour. The latter is probably the most sensitive and delicate issue facing the European community and the events of the last few months since the British general election have been deeply disturbing.

The problem can be simply stated, although just about all the feasible solutions pose formidable problems.

Some argue that the demand for admission enormously exceeds the available capacity. One feature of recent events has been the extent to which initial declarations of support from heads of state have been attenuated as the consequences of unlimited and uncontrolled entry have been examined.

Some would argue that in retrospect Angela Merkel made a mistake in agreeing to suspend the existing migration rules with their defined categories of asylum seekers and economic migrants by extending a welcome to hundreds of thousands of would be migrants regardless of status or country of origin.

Was the German Chancellor’s initial declaration of support an example of a commendable humanitarian response to a huge human tragedy, or an emotional spasm? Time is about to tell and the news is that Germany is to apply various restrictions in order the ease the consequences of initial generosity.

For its part, the Labour Party needs to be mindful of the very real attraction to many would-be immigrants of securing entry to the UK with its perceived attractions in terms of a wide range of social benefits.

This is not to criticise any of the aspiring immigrants – in their shoes, I would do the same, and so would most people.

It is worth noting that one consequence of modern communications technology means that most would-be immigrants are well informed as to the pros and cons of securing a place in this or that country.

It is unfortunate that the first real test of the EU immigration arrangements has found them to be wanting both as to their workability and as to their acceptability.

It may well be the case that far more wish to come than can be admitted without a significant risk of ethnic conflict and an erosion, maybe even a collapse, in social organisation.

Labour should finalise a policy that balances the need to alleviate suffering to the fullest possible extent with a plan that would actually work. That manageable plan might be similar to the existing rules and regulations.

As with immigration, the Putin question has been very much with us of late. Presidents Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama spent recently met in order to discuss possible solutions to difficulties in the Middle East and in Eastern Ukraine, and it would seem that there was little agreement between them.

The policy of the United States in the Middle East has been less than helpful since September 11 with the systematic removal of leaders seen as hostile to American interests, even though some of those removed were no worse than say Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States in terms of their records on human rights.

The policy of the US and many within the EU with regard to the difficulties in Eastern Ukraine has been an over-reaction. We should all look at our atlas from time to time to remind ourselves about who lives where, and what is the historical background.

Attempts to establish a single EU foreign policy have not got off to a good start. Should we bomb Syria or not? Marx said: “History repeats itself first as tragedy then as farce. There is a case to reverse this aphorism in the case of the politics of the Middle East in that Suez was a farce whereas events in the Middle East from the invasion of Iraq to the present time have been a protracted tragedy.

On the EU Social Chapter, this issue is a simple one in terms of formulating a policy that combines clarity with popularity – unless, you would like to see a return to slavery. Quite simply, the employment arrangements as laid down in the EU Social Chapter provide a sound basis for a fair society, and crucially a society in which employees are entitled to be consulted rather than simply informed about management plans and intentions.

The Labour Party is sure to see these progressive arrangements as a key argument to remain in the EU, whether in the USE or the looser free trade area.

It is conceivable that Cameron, ever anxious to toss bones to the right wing of his party, would gladly see the Social Chapter arrangements diluted or even abandoned if he thought that this would enhance the prospect of an “in” vote.

Labour should make it clear that the party would like to remain in Europe but in a Europe that retains and even extends arrangements in favour of workers and their representatives in the trade unions.

On a personal note, from 2003 to 2014, I worked as an advisor to the National Trade Union Steel Co-ordinating Committee, a body made up of the national officials of Trade Unions with members in the UK steel sector.

In early 2014, a contentious issue arose with regard to the plan by Tata to close its technology centre in Rotherham and establish a new centre in Warwick. All Rotherham employees who so wished could move to Warwick. Problems arose not because of flaws in the project itself, but rather in the brusque treatment of the employees who were unhappy with the plans.

In my report to the NTUSCC on the project, I wrote: “The European model of joint consultation was established after the Second World War and has been a force for progress in that management plans are subject to scrutiny. Works councils are emphatically not there to serve as rubber stamps.

“I suspect that elsewhere in the world there is rather more deference towards and acceptance of plans that are put forward by management. I do not wish to comment here on the pros and cons of the two approaches. I merely note that they are different – and I think that we would jointly make more progress if we ensure that the European model is operated in Europe.”

That remains my view.

My guess is that the EU corruption boil is ripe for bursting, but that may be my ingrained cynicism. However it would be a simple matter for Jeremy Corbyn to set up a small team to study if the allegations which surface from time to time, to decide if the allegations have any basis in fact, and, if yes, to recommend measures to nip them in the bud.

The method of electing Members of the European Parliament is not only open to corruption, it positively encourages it. Is there a case to establish single member constituencies to enable the voters to assess the calibre of the candidates?

Jeremy Corbyn should set up a Labour policy review team to study the various options, to make recommendations and then report back to a special very public very transparent conference.  This should focus on what changes, if any, that the UK should seek to make to the existing EU arrangements.

Throughout the proceedings the Labour leader must to ensure that he is not seen to be playing Little Sir Echo to David Cameron.

I hope that the outcome of the of all this will be a Labour decision to remain in a reformed EU, one that Corbyn could confidently recommend to the British people. At this early stage, and on balance I see the staying in case as stronger than the coming out one.

Former Chancellor Nigel Lawson has argued the case for Brexit, in part because David Cameron “has already watered down demands” and in part because he thinks it unlikely that the changes the would like to see are unlikely to be conceded.

So it is going to be a hard fought campaign and at times it will be difficult to distinguish between substance and froth. But all these issues are critical to our future.

This article first appeared in Tribune on October 27, 2015

Image courtesy of South Wirral High School.



Author: holdenforth

50 years in management - mostly as a sharp-end man. Occasional contributor to Tribune.

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