Sunday, 26 February 2012

Thoughts post- the Fabians' Social Europe Conference.

It can be hard to know how to feel about Europe when you’re on the left. So much of the thinking behind the EU so endears itself to the left wing mentality; collective endeavour, solidarity, shared risks and rewards…what’s not to love? Oh, right; those right wing austerity measures. But what the Fabian Society’s conference on Europe reminded me was; this isn’t Europe’s failing. This is the right failing in Europe.

A big problem the left has faced in the modern world is that while capital has become increasing global, social democracy has largely failed to. But you can’t have social democracy in one country when all external forces are acting against you. Instead of right wing policies in the EU turning us against the EU, we must work with other left wing parties to create a united social democratic movement throughout Europe; this is in the best interests of social democracy in our own country.

Of course there is a balance to strike. Different policies work in different countries; different social democratic models will be needed for different societies. The EU can ensure a minimum level of social provisions within its member states, but it mustn’t be a strait jacket, and exactly where EU regulation should stop is debatable; the ideas of an EU wide minimum wage and an EU wide corporation tax, for example, were suggested during the conference, but it was later argued that this was taking it too far, though we should have EU provisions that all countries must have a minimum wage, and that there should be a minimum corporation tax level.

So there’s room for debate there.

But without a doubt, the EU that gave us four weeks paid holiday and regulations on working hours can continue to play a vital role in improving the lives of many of many European citizens, if the left are able to steer it in that direction.

However, the left’s influence over European policy, and its electoral success…could be better. Hence the right wing policies that make the whole issue of Europe so problematic for the left. But this must not force the Labour Party into retreat over Europe…however hard it may be to stand firm with so much of  the media, especially, portraying such an anti-EU perspective.

But the strong influence of the right in the EU is exactly the reason for the opposite response; the left must fight against this trend, and the Labour Party must join that fight. And in this fight we must be open to increased pluralism; working with a range of left wing parties in Europe, such as the Greens, as well as other Labour Parties.

And we must know, and be able to clearly communicate, what we are fighting for. The eurosceptics have an easy narrative to communicate on Europe; it is stealing our money, distorting our markets and killing our democracy. They’re wrong, but the Labour Party does not have a coherent counter-narrative, and it needs one. Itemising the successes of European social policy is not enough; we must be able to discuss the grander vision of social democracy throughout Europe, of the need for collective market regulation and protection for workers throughout the EU, because otherwise left wing policies in one country can be undermined by right wing policies in others. And therefore, both for short term electoral success and long term policy success, the left in Europe must, must, must work together. But the Labour Party needs to understand this narrative, communicate this narrative and live this narrative.

In terms of the common market, we must not allow it to become a race to the bottom to try and create a stronger economy. To quote Emma Reynolds, the Shadow Secretary for Europe, “becoming the poundland of the EU will not create prosperity”, but it will hurt workers. Some of the EU’s strongest economies have strong worker’s rights, such as Germany and Sweden. They also have these rights in spite of currently having right wing governments; something the Labour Party should take note of. The common market can create prosperity, but strong European social values have a key part to play in this.

And we must not confuse the eurozone crisis with the EU as a whole; and most importantly we must communicate to the electorate that they are not one and the same. The eurozone crisis is, needless to say, complicated. But whatever is to be done about it, it does not provide an argument against the EU, or shared European values. But much of the electorate believes that it does. It is our job to get them to understand otherwise.

And to get them to understand the grander narrative behind Europe and the European social model; the good it’s done, the good it could do and the wider, collectivist thinking behind it. But first we need to truly understand that narrative ourselves.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the post, had to miss the conference due to health. Europe is always an incredibly difficult area, it's opaque and complex, with many political organs and different types of country within its confines, to say nothing of the parochial nature of national media, and the highly inward focus of nations. Proceeding more by political consensus than by more nuanced argument, the EU has coasted into a lot of mistakes.

    The Austerity consensus in particular, alongside the early unwillingness to employ the ECB to obviate liquidity problems in countries like Italy, and intractible political malaise over fiscal integration seem likely to cast a long shadow in history, not least over Germany's role in them.

    Meanwhile, institutions like those you mention, and particularly the ECHR, have become unique and remarkable successes, unparalleled in history. The effect of Europe on human rights, rule of law, corruption and other issues in its spreading zone of influence has been truly remarkable.

    Given so much of the public here in the UK barely understand our own constitutional system, it is difficult to imagine a successful process of European democratic engagement, but the jack-straw esque backtracking on this is equally unthinkable. There needs to be much more work, especially in the media and in education, at developing a working knowledge of the role the EU plays in our lives, and how we can be a force for good in that.