The European Union is a political system. Like any political system, it can do left-wing or right-wing things, depending on who’s running it. But some of the major problems we face will not be solved by nation-states alone. The left’s response should be to organise itself in the EU, not to abolish it
It’s a funny thing, the European Union.
It’s an evil machine imposing low spending, liberalisation and all manner of other right-wing economic policies. Yet it’s also an evil machine imposing high spending, red tape and all manner of other left-wing economic policies. Both at the same time – no mean feat. That’s, like, quantum.
Of course, in reality it’s neither of those things. Calling the European Union “right-wing” is like calling the British political system “right-wing” (or “left-wing” for that matter). It doesn’t really make sense. The people currently running it can be one or the other, but the system is just the system. Within it, right-wing and left-wing governments come and go.
So that term “right-wing” doesn’t describe the European Union. But it does describe, say, the current European Commission. The Commissioners set the agenda and propose new European laws (a bit like a European ‘government’). Since its members are appointed by European national governments, and the Right is in power in most of Europe, so the President and most of the Commissioners come from right-wing parties. Similarly, the Right controls the European Council and has the largest share of the European Parliament (think of these as like the two Houses of the UK Parliament).
That means the European Union is doing right-wing things. Right-wing politicians are using the EU to entrench austerity; to water down Europe 2020, originally supposed to be a growth strategy; to avoid strong commitments on carbon reduction. This Commission is advising European governments that “Member States facing very large structural budget deficits… need to frontload their efforts in 2011” and that “Indirect taxes are more growth-friendly than direct taxes;” the fact that all this hits the poorest hardest is presumably just a small price to pay. Counterproductive, short-sighted, self-interested. Even with Greece on the brink, this is the only answer Europe’s right-wing leaders have to offer.
But it’s not always been so. The Left has achieved a great deal in Europe, even when there have been right-wing Commissions. Comrades in the Trade Union movement will know that British workers’ rights are guaranteed by EU law. We didn’t enjoy a guaranteed right to paid holiday until it was brought in by EU politicians, for example. They also brought in a rule which would have given European workers protection against overly long working hours – if the UK government hadn’t secured us an opt-out. (It is not a coincidence that British workers have the longest working hours in Europe.) There are many more examples.
So it’s frustrating that so many on the Left just want to leave the EU rather than engage with it – even when those very same people will use the UK political system to organise and fight for radical causes. Leaving the EU could leave us even more exposed to internationally mobile capital, as things like workers’ rights or bank taxation or carbon reductions become increasingly difficult to fight for at the national level. The European Union has been, and can be, a way for member states to organise themselves against the worst effects of globalisation.
Leaving the EU would also leave us more exposed to the Cameron Government – or future Tory governments. And not only on workers’ rights. Recently, despite the UK Government’s attempts to water them down, new EU restrictionshave been placed on bankers’ bonuses – with at least one Labour MEP instrumental in ensuring the tougher rules were adopted. Even with a conservative Commission, here the EU was our last bulwark against rampant Toryism in the UK.
The biggest problem is, admittedly, a lack of democracy at EU level. We have an elected European Parliament, and our MEPs have made some fantastic gains on our behalf. But unlike elections to the UK Parliament, elections to the European Parliament don’t determine who’s in charge. The European Commission is appointed through shady negotiations between governments, away from voters’ prying eyes, and without regard to the way they have voted. It also makes the EU political debate poorer; it is difficult to create a true ‘public debate’ unless a real choice is presented to voters – as political scientists such as Simon Hix at the LSE have argued. A priority for the Left should be to argue for a democratic Europe, whose leaders are chosen by voters.
There’s a lot to criticise in the European Union, but when we do, we should remember that we are all part of it. EU decisions don’t come from nowhere; we get right-wing policies in Brussels when the Right wins the political battles, just like in Westminster. We aren’t leaving the EU any time soon, and if we did, we would be leaving ourselves without a real way of tackling big problems like globalisation and climate change. There is admittedly a ‘democratic deficit’ which needs to be filled. But instead of wasting our time calling for the UK to leave the EU, we should be thinking about how we can organise ourselves to win in it. ■