Monday, 19 November 2012

One Nation and Europe

EdM's One Nation in Europe speech today at the CBI conference formally marks an interesting shift in Labour Party positioning on the EU. I say interesting because for too long Labour has ceded this political ground to the right. Defending the EU as is may have attraction for some, but having little to nothing to say about wasteful spending (the Strasbourg-Brussels merry-go-round, anyone?), questionable subsidies, and the democratic void that lies at the heart of the European project is no way to defend the EU from those who would like to see British withdrawal to the margins.

EdM's speech begins by locating the roots of Euro-Scepticism in the ongoing generational shift. For a brief period when Britain was lobbying to be allowed into the European Community, the EEC personified a liberal internationalism, of Western Europe putting aside centuries of bloodshed and transcending national antagonisms (that it was, among other things, a creature of Cold War exigency can be left for another time). But this gloss has well and truly worn off, and its legitimacy is imperilled by powerful centrifugal forces.

Right now, though not every EU member state is signed up to it, the union is identified with the Euro, which in turn is linked inextricably with unceasing economic crisis. Years of negative press about the Eurocrat gravy train and French farming subsidies have taken their toll. And, not least, the largest wave of immigration modern Britain has ever seen, our media has indelibly associated EU membership with open borders, foreign criminals, and increased competition for jobs. Rather than fighting shy of the material basis of Euro-Secpticism, EdM believes it needs tackling by arguing a new case for Europe.

The first point of defence is an old point: the inextricable links between Britain and the continental economy. The dependence on the markets next door go without saying, and EdM is clear those relationships are absolutely crucial to the One Nation economy he wants, not least because it's Britain's place within the single market that attracts overseas capital, particularly from the IT and advanced manufacturing sectors.

The second of EdM's arguments are about Britain's place on the world stage. He says collaboration across the EU allows for greater successes in combatting terrorism and crime, and addressing climate change. There is also the expansionary dynamic, part and parcel of which is a civilising tendency that combines economic cooperation with liberal democracy and the rule of law. Candidate states' rights to the market come with the responsibility of undertaking political reform.

So much for the grounds for staying in the EU. But what solution to the siren calls of the right?

It's the economy, stupid.

The EU's greatest failure is the driving of austerity throughout Europe. Therefore the uses of its budget has to be fundamentally rethought. With 1.5% of the EU's economy comprising of agriculture, yet consuming 40% of tax payers' cash, there is a clear argument for the redeployment of resources to infrastructural projects in key growth sectors. Hence why the centre left should not automatically nod through budget increases. And who can disagree with looking how money is spent and deploying it more effectively?

Then turning to what it might be like if the UK was to leave the EU, he quite rightly points out that while Britain could participate in the single market like Switzerland and Norway do, resources would have to be expended on lobbying member states for changes that could benefit British economic interests. It would also mean the exclusion of Britain from global trade negotiations where the EU sits as a powerful bloc alongside the USA and China. The only unique selling points Britain would have for international investors would be low grade manufacturing and a safe haven for tax dodgers, should the exiteers get their way.

On the question of an in/out referendum, EdM is against one for pragmatic, economic considerations. A drawn out campaign in all likelihood would put investors off Britain until its mind was made up - a point even the saner elements of the Tories seem to acknowledge. EdM also offers a pragmatic approach to the repatriation-of-powers rhetoric Dave has occasionally indulged, though all his absurd Little Britain posturing on the EU's stage has actually damaged the national interests he claims to be protecting.

EdM's speech strikes that curious passive-assertive tone peculiar to his policy-lite statements on Labour's direction-of-travel. If you were being ungenerous, you could accuse him of opportunism. One, because it provides political cover for Labour's voting with the Tory Europhobic right against increases to the EU budget. And two, it allows EdM to pick his battles on Europe in the future. By critiquing spending in this way, he has staked out a territory for himself that Dave will have to pass through in his attempts to placate his lunatic fringe.

But there's more to it than positioning inside the Westminster bubble. More widely, EdM has signalled an opening for Labour thinkers to recast the relationship between Britain and the EU. It is an opportunity to look at how the EU can be positively reformed. I for one would like to see moves to greater democracy and transparency - the EU began and has continued as an elite project, but now requires popular input if its present legitimacy crisis is to be positively resolved. I also think pushing a review along the lines of zero budgeting as advocated by Stella Creasy and the folk associated with In the Black Labour can go some way to undermine popular notions of EU waste. Though I would measure worth not by narrowly-defined costs but by Public Value.

All this is more than a chin-stroking exercise for policy wonks and bloggers. EdM is serious about the One Nation schtick. It is his vision-thing; a hodge-podge of Disraeli, Blue Labourism, the post-war social monarchy, Wilson's white heat of technology and Blairism at its most dynamic, forward thinking, and multicultural. While there is certainly room in its tent for trade unionism and left leaning, redistributive predistributive policies, it is ultimately a vision in the process of becoming, of working out how to address core and swing voter alike. By effortlessly annexing One Nationism from an increasingly sectional Tory party, EdM has a new base from which to cleave into the soft Conservative vote - those who took Dave's liberal Toryism at face value, the traditional true blues who feel a sense of patrician obligation to those unfortunate enough to be at the bottom, and those attracted to the Tories out of unease over the EU, immigration, and so on.

It is therefore not without accident that EdM's first One Nationist pronouncement was on an issue on which the right is strong and the centre left is weak. Do not be too surprised if over the coming months we see further interventions on matters Tories, UKIP'ers, and others on the decomposing right believe is their property.


Paul said...

A pretty fair assessment of where Labour/EdM find themselves now - still grappling with how to go about it but in a slightly better place than a year ago. Yes, i'd like to see more in the way of a critique of the neoliberalism embedded in the EU, as the budget itself is something of a sideshow compared with that, but at least he's shownig willing to engage in one or two of the substantives.

Specifically on the CAP, though, I think you risk throwing the baby out with the bathwater here. Yes there are problems with it, but I don't think we should forget why it was introduced, and the continuing need (increasing with climate change) for some form of socialised food security. It's not all about rich farmers getting richer, and it's important to note that the % of the budget spent on farm payments has dropped from 70% in 1985 to 30% (another 10% on broader rural devt) now.

I've got a piece on all this stuff at L'list tomorrow

Boffy said...


I agree about the need for an emphasis on EU democracy, though that should be in the context of real Pan Europeanism i.e. a commitment, perhaps throught the Socialist International for establishing a single European Workers Party, single European Trades Unions and so on. It would also require using the idea of the single market as the basis for a true level playing field i.e. no exemptions from the Social Charter, common Pensions and benefits across the market, single Corporation Tax rates etc., which would be the simplest means of preventing tax dodging via transfer pricing.

However, I disagree when you write,

"he quite rightly points out that while Britain could participate in the single market like Switzerland and Norway do".

The UK could not do that as the Right say. Both Switzerland and Norway have populations more like that of London! The economic realities are quite different. More importantly, the politics are different. Neither Norway nor Switzerland present any kind of challenge to the EU. An independent Britain, particularly one with its links to the US, does.

There would be every reason for the EU to treat an independent UK as a hostile competitor. Every reason to cut it off, cast it adrift, and put every barrier to its economic well-being forward as possible. The EU, would have every reason to use its economic power to dominate such a UK.

Phil said...

Re: CAP, I'm all for looking at things with fresh eyes. If it is socially useful and not a gravy train for agribusiness, then I'm sure it would pass a public value probity test with ease. But I think a Labour pledge to undertake a root and branch review of EU finances along the lines above would position Labour as a friend of Europe, but of a different kind of Europe. I think it's a position that could undercut and reverse some of the poison swilling about on the topic.

Phil said...

That's an excellent point, Arthur. Is that the reason why French governments kept Britain out for so long?

That argument definitely needs wider currency.

The US-EU dynamic is a curious beast indeed.

Fiona said...

New to your blog. Nice to read a thorough analysis