Labour should embrace an EU referendum and offer a better Europe

Neal Lawson

Wednesday, 03 July 2013

Europe as a good society is published by today by Compass and the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung. Download and comment here.

Labour is getting itself stuck on the hook of Europe. Should it back an in-out referendum and satisfy the pull policies of Ukip and the Tory right? Much more importantly, will it ever let the people of Britain in on the elite project of Europe? The project that cuts the people out and that looks and talks down to them – the Europe of the bureaucrats and austerity.

Labour is in a mess because it is mostly a pro-European party that wants to stay in Europe but feels the rising weight of inconsolable Euroscepticism all around it – at just the moment the Europe it supports is dying on its economic and political knees. If the people are offered a choice of sticking with this miserable, remote and failing project, or to exit, it’s no surprise some decide to run away from democracy. But the Labour party cannot run for ever.

Instead of looking as if it is being dragged to a referendum against its will, Labour must change the terms of debate by offering a real choice on a different sort of Europe. This is all democracy can really be – a decision over competing visions of society. But to offer a meaningful alternative means Labour has to help develop one. And fast.

Labour’s pro-European alliance always had different motives. For some it just makes business sense – a bigger market in which to trade. But for others it is the potential of Europe that keeps us going back for more. It is through this radical strand of thinking that Labour will find the European answers it seeks.

The potential of Europe is this – that in a world in which capital has successfully leapt from the clutches of nation states, it offers the best (only?) hope of re-civilising it. Europe is the best arena we have to regulate the wild excesses of free markets and plan how society uses ever more scarce resources such as energy, food and water. It is the one place in which the blackmail of corporate exit to regimes with lower taxes, more liberalised labour markets and laxer environmental standards melts away as a threat if the nations of Europe stand together and demand decent pay, reasonable taxes and the defence of the planet. Capital can play one nation off against another but what it can’t do is ignore a market of 300 million mostly highly paid and skilled workers – certainly in comparison to much of the rest of the world.

This is why the right inside and outside the Tory party are correct to fear and loathe Europe. They are not sceptics but implacably opposed to Europe, and will therefore never be persuaded by Britain’s place in it or appeased by halfway-house exit measures. Because Europe always carries with it the seeds of the potential subordination of the market by society, exit, for them, is the only answer.

This essential difference cannot be triangulated away. It must be confronted by embracing a Europe that is both social and democratic. This will require a radical twin-track strategy that sets out economic reforms that would ensure capital serves the interests of society, and not the other way round.

The detail of the policy reforms that I suggest can be downloaded in this document, Europe as a Good Society. Measures include: an emergency economic recovery programme, a Marshall Plan for Europe, the socialisation of debt through eurobonds and the effective regulation and breakup of banks that are too big to fail. Alongside these social measures, a range of democratic reforms would be enacted that lead eventually to the creation of a European government and greater national sovereign powers. Sovereignty has already been lost. Only a democratic Europe net can recapture it.

When some progress has been made and plans for reform have been fully worked out, there should be a referendum on whether Britain stays or leaves. But the staying would be based on a real Europe – a much better Europe. And it cannot be a case of democracy forever delayed because “it’s never the right time – Europe isn’t perfect enough yet so we can’t let the people vote”. Let’s have a referendum on the day of the election due in 2020. Then Britain can decide because it will have a real choice.

Labour can only get itself off the hook of the referendum on Europe if the question is not “this Europe or exit” but a “better Europe or exit”. And to get to that point Labour won’t just have to be pro-European, it will have to start being European because to create a better alternative demands working with other progressive parties across the continent now. A vote such as this will not only help Labour and other European social democratic parties win a referendum on Europe – it would be a referendum worth winning.

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  1. Posted by Dorene McCormack

    The Labour Party should be brave enough to give the majority what they want. I voted for the Common Market in the 70s but now the situation is very different. I would never have voted to be “in” then if it were to allow much more than a trading agreement. I could never have envisaged that apart from the large amounts of money we are now expect to put in that so many rules and regulations would be placed on our country. I urge all parties to give the people a vote, once again and to ensure that the public are fully aware of the “pros and cons”.

  2. Posted by Robert

    Mind you a good solid couple of Polls in Wales think the majority would vote to come out of the EU, well good solid in as much they are the only two, but 37 % voted to come out 27% voted they’d stay in the rest do not care, and I’m in the do not care much group.

    I think Labour will have to come out in favour of the vote, simple too many people will vote Tory just to get the referendum.

  3. Posted by TomKay

    I agree broadly with this article, but how can it be deemed running away from democracy if people vote to leave? Surely democracy in Britain would be strengthened if we left, wouldn’t it? By not having the EU Commission and Parliament in the picture, decision-making would be brought one step closer to the people who are ultimately affected by the decisions. Thereby motivating them to engage more deeply in the political process.

    It seems that the idea of the EU – like the idea of communism – only really functions theoretically. And surely the EU can only exist by being actively anti-democratic. How else can it push the project in the direction it wants? I’ll put my trust in the voters rather than a panel of wise, old men, I think.