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Time to get serious about Europe

Critics of the Lisbon declaration are wrong, Eurostar is the only train in town, argues Peter Rowlands

In hindsight, although I fully subscribed to it at the time, it is now clear to me that the British left's policy of withdrawal from Europe in the 1970s and 80s was thoroughly misconceived.

The left argument was, broadly, that Britain should withdraw from an inward - looking 'capitalist club' whose right wing governments and policies of internal free trade and capital movement would not allow a left wing Labour government to implement the 'Alternative Economic Strategy,' based on controls over trade and capital movements, in order to maximize employment and investment in the UK.


Withdrawal from the EEC, as it then was, and as proposed in Labour's 1983 manifesto, would probably have been a failure, causing a recession far worse than that caused by Tory policies in the early 1980s and probably putting Britain once again, as in 1976, at the mercy of the IMF. Any gains from import restrictions would have been outweighed by the reduction in exports to Europe that would have followed as tariff barriers were put in place. The UK had a lot more to lose from being at a disadvantage in trading with Europe than vice versa. It was fundamentally wrong to believe that a country as relatively small and weak as the UK could have succeeded with such policies, although ironically they might have had some success on a Europe wide basis, promoting economic regeneration in Europe and a political distancing of Europe from the USA which might have borne fruit in the Gorbachev era. But such a Europe -wide AES was never remotely contemplated by Labour, even when Mitterand's Socialists were advocating similar policies which they briefly sought to implement in 1982/3 without success.

The AES was originally developed by left wingers in the Labour Party and the CPGB, and had been generally accepted by the wider left in the Labour Party and the trade unions by the late 1970s. From the CPGB's point of view a prime aim was to detach the UK from Europe and NATO, thus relatively strengthening the Soviet Union's hand in the Cold War. In practice, as argued above, this would have failed as the rebound to the right following the UK's withdrawal and the subsequent economic collapse would have made the UK far more of a US satellite than it allegedly became in the Thatcher/Reagan years.

A key argument in the 1970's was that European governments were right-wing and would oppose any attempt to recast the EEC in a more left-wing mould. While this was to a certain extent true of the 1960s it had ceased to be so by the mid 1970s. In 1975 there were social democratic governments in five of the nine member states of the EEC. (UK, West Germany, Belgium, Holland and Denmark.)

In the 1980s Jacques Delors's promotion of a 'Social Europe' did much to lessen left-wing opposition to Europe in the UK, while the Conservatives under Mrs. Thatcher became increasingly hostile. Europe became their problem. With the rise of a fundamentalist anti-European right having helped to prevent the continuation of the moderate Clarke/Major orientation and a potentially successful challenge to New Labour in its second term, this anti-European right is continuing to cause problems for Cameron's 'new' Conservatives.

But while most of those who would label themselves as left in the Labour Party have jettisoned the withdrawal from Europe policies of the 70s a substantial core remain hostile to Europe (mainly around the Campaign Group). The recent referenda on the Constitution have given a boost to this outlook, which has seen this section of the left, as in France, claiming it to be a people's rejection of a capitalist Europe. Would that it were the case, but the sad truth is that while a minority voted against on this basis most did so because of general insecurity about the effects of the recent enlargement, the disappointment at continuing high levels of unemployment and a feeling that the EU was remote and out of control.

Certainly these are feelings that the left can build on, but they certainly don't amount to a rejection on a left-wing basis. However, the Little Englandism which is so powerful a part of the Labour tradition survives in this adherence to the vision of an independent British (or English) socialism, distinct and distant from (and for some preferably not part of) Europe.

The full implications of this outlook (withdrawal from Europe) would be a disaster for the socialist cause, and if replicated in other EU countries could lead to the break up of Europe which would almost certainly benefit the right rather than a divided left, whose prescriptions, where they were allowed to be implemented, would result only in economic recession. The right would not fare better in this respect, but would be better placed to benefit from the xenophobia that would have been the driving force of such a disintegration, while big business would be much less constrained. Such a development would also marginalize European power in the world.

There is, thankfully, not much sign of this happening at the moment, but an economic downturn could easily strengthen the support for those arguing for withdrawal. It is therefore vital that the left maintains its support for a united Europe but recognizes that reflationary measures to reduce unemployment and stimulate growth are vital if the EU is to increase the popular support which will be necessary if progress towards a social democratic, and beyond that a democratic socialist EU is to be made. Policy, reflected in the Growth and Stability Pact and the outlook of the European Central Bank has been overly concerned with inflation at the expense of these more important objectives, although, as argued below, they can probably only be fully achieved through a central authority with much greater power and resources than is at present the case.

However, the problem is that there is little debate within the British Left about these and other issues, including the Euro, defence and foreign policy, enlargement, regional policy, agricultural protection, decision making, economic policy, and many more. It is almost as if these issues are not our concern.


What is crucial is to seek to project a vision of what Europe could be like, something which Jacques Delors had tried to do in the late 1980s with some success, leading to the Euro, greater integration and enlargement, but concerns over the latter in particular and continuing high levels of unemployment has reduced support for the EU and made its leaders wary of further initiatives. Part of the problem is that the EU is to most people a switch-off, being associated with bureaucracy and regulation. However, while individual countries can provide decent welfare policies it is only through the EU that the peoples of Europe can continue to provide the wealth and prosperity upon which such social provision depends, while at the same time controlling big business in the interests of the peoples of Europe and being a powerful voice for peace and progress in the wider world.

Thus to argue that the Lisbon declaration means that the EU is irrevocably capitalist and free market is nonsense. The EU will be what we make of it, and that for the left in the UK should mean making common cause with other left-wing groupings in the EU in seeking to hammer out a common platform for developing the EU, seeking to develop policy on the EU within the Labour Party and taking a critical interest in the policies of the PES (Party of European Socialists).


None of this is happening, except on the margins, but until it does we are not going to get anywhere. Most of the left in the UK who support such a goal have only the haziest idea of the policies of the social democratic parties in the EU, or of the left wings of such parties. In particular it would be instructive to forge links at unofficial levels, with the goal perhaps of a conference of this section of the European left.

Progress towards socialism can only succeed if it occurs in at least some of the advanced countries, and Europe is the place where that is most likely, with substantial support for socialist and social democratic parties in most EU countries. But that will not happen unless a central authority has much greater power to intervene in order to promote the prosperity and full employment without which there will be insufficient support for a social democratic Europe. This means federalism, with an elected central government with a hugely increased budget and powers, a harmonised system of taxation and welfare services, and a common defence and foreign policy, including EU-wide armed forces. To achieve this would of course mean overcoming substantial opposition from nationalist and right wing forces, not least in the UK. Without an elected federal government the EU will continue to lack legitimacy and be perceived as being run by unaccountable 'Brussels Bureaucrats,' and more importantly will not have the power to manage and promote the economic and social policies that will be necessary if the EU is to make progress.

Federalism can obviously not be achieved in the short term. Indeed it has probably been rendered more difficult by the recent accession of the 12 mainly Eastern European countries to the EU, much to the satisfaction of the US which fears a more cohesive and centralized EU and sees EU enlargement as a means of isolating Russia, as the recent deployment of missiles in ex-Soviet satellites demonstrates. However, the exclusion of the new members would have left them in a sort of limbo which may have triggered damaging political and economic consequences, although the logic of their inclusion should mean much greater co-operation with Russia, rather than the US inspired growth of animosity between the EU and Russia recently.

Significant difference

This is not to say that social democratic governments in individual member states cannot make a significant difference - of course they can, but if the arguments earlier in this article are accepted then a go-it-alone policy is unlikely to be successful. Neither is it the case that the EU will automatically lead to a socialist Europe, rather it is that such a goal can only be achieved through a reformed EU.

The problem is that the questions posed in this article are simply not debated on the left in the UK. Europe is not seen as an important issue. Sections of the (mainly far) left see the break-up of the EU as a precondition of any advance. On the contrary, progress towards a social democratic or 'social' Europe - the model espoused by the PES and most left of centre parties in Europe - is feasible and the only basis for further progress towards a genuine democratic socialism in Europe.