We are all sceptics now

Richard Laming, sceptical as hell

An interesting debate unfolds about how Labour should square its support for the European Union with its criticism of many of the most important EU policies.  Its recent support for the Tory eurosceptic amendment on the budget, calling for a cut rather than David Cameron’s preferred option of a freeze, was the catalyst for this debate, but truth be told it has been coming for a long time.  The consequences of austerity as played out in Greece and Spain must surely given anyone on the left pause for thought: is this what social democracy is supposed to look like?

David Clark warns that

At a time when the European system is visibly malfunctioning to the obvious distress of so many, the consequences have been politically disastrous. Policy failure has become an existential threat to the eurozone and toBritain’s membership of the EU.

To be frank:

The truth is that Europe has been abysmally led for several years now. The extent of that leadership deficit became painfully apparent when the global financial crash revealed deep design flaws in the EU’s approach to monetary union. Forever shambling towards yesterday’s solution tomorrow, EU leaders have lacked the imagination and willpower to solve the continent’s problems and chart a path to recovery. A lot of unnecessary suffering has been the result.

This means rethinking the way in which Labour positions itself:

To be pro-European is to be in favour of Brussels and all its works; not just a budget that operates like a ratchet irrespective of wider financial conditions, but every new proposal for deeper integration, good or bad.

And that is evidently no good.  But what is the alternative?  Hopi Sen worries that such a course of action will only encourage the Tories more.

the practical danger with such and approach is that it’s unlikely to work, and by entering into a debate he’s very unlikely to win, Cameron would no longer be insouicantly strolling to the European Exit, but purposefully striding towards it.

And that’s no good either.  So what is to be done?

First, I think it is necessary to dispense with David Clark’s definition of pro-European.  The old Federal Union glossary (maybe we should bring it back) defined pro-Europeans thus:

people who think that the European Union is a good idea and that Britain should be part of it.

Nothing about supporting everything that Brussels does or the Commission proposes.  In fact, quite the opposite.  In a mature democracy, those kinds of arguments against the prevailing orthodoxy become possible, and right now they are needed.  And the truth is that, if it makes arguments of this kind, Labour is not alone.

All across Europe, there are political parties, and voters, who think that the way out of the current financial crisis needs more European policies, not fewer, but different ones from those we have at present.  I can’t be the only person struck by how the Labour party opposes austerity in Britain but calls for it in Brussels.  Slashing the budget, any budget, regardless of what that budget is paying for makes no sense.  Labour needs to see the logic of this.

But what should those policies be?  Let’s start with the economics.

Reinhart and Rogoff, in This time is different, suggest that it takes as long to get out of a crisis as it did to get into it in the first place.  If this is the case, then not only was George Osborne’s plan to eliminate the structural deficit – built up, he claimed, under Labour – in a single parliament far too fast, but the demands made on Greece – adrift for 30 years or more – were ridiculous.  Labour happily makes the first of those arguments, why not the second?

An end has to be brought to extreme austerity, to be replaced by a longer-term plan to deliver a return to prosperity.  That longer-term plan will need institutional underpinning if it is to be credible.  But the alternative is to abandon Greece to the whims of the financial markets.  Is that really what the centre-left wants?

Next, there is the need to rebalance the single market itself.  Social elements have been trodden underfoot by commercial ones.  The value and role of the public realm needs to be reclaimed: the implication of the single market so far has been to privilege commercial needs over social ones.

Here’s an example.  Think of the absurdity over student tuition fees.  English students pay more to attend Scottish universities than German or French students do.  This is plainly nonsense.  Attending a university is not like buying or providing a commercial service and should not be treated in the same way through the single market.  This is to reclaim the public realm from the insistences of the single market.  Isn’t this what centre-left politics is all about?

And lastly, Labour should not just talk about these things but it should do them.  On the same day that David Clark and Hopi Sen are writing about this, the European Parliament voted in favour of political parties nominating candidates for president of the European Commission at the time of the next elections.  (An idea that has long been a favourite of this website.)

Labour, as part of the PES group, will have a share in choosing and then a role in supporting a centre-left candidate for president in 2014.  The Tories, having left the EPP of course, will have no role in choosing the centre-right candidate.  Leaving the EPP was David Cameron’s personal pledge: its consequences could not fall more sweetly.

Not only is it possible to be critical of the EU as it is right now, it is necessary to be critical.  To say that does not make me less of a pro-European.  What matters is that there is a constructive alternative that uses the European institutions to deliver better outcomes for the people ofEurope.  An end to the austerity mania, a rebalancing of the social and the commercial, and elections for the people who take political decisions.  Centre-left politics can be sceptical and positive, both at the same time.

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