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Cross roads for the left on the European constitution

Graham Copp calls on the left to join the critical debate on Europe.

It is a great irony that one of the biggest political issues facing the left is, in many respects, one of the least politicised. Since the days of Jacques Delores it has been taken, almost as an article of faith, that virtually uncritical support for deeper European integration is the right approach for the British left.

Almost 50 years have passed since the first great theorist of European integration, Ernst Haas, wrote his seminal work, the Uniting of Europe. In that book, he described a technocratic process, with Europeanised elites driving forward integration, which would be beneficial to everybody. With a few minor adjustments, this could characterise an attitude that is still remarkably prevalent on the British left: Brussels is on our side – they are relatively enlightened elites, who will give us a better deal for working people than we could ever get alone in the UK. However, it is about time that the left took stock and looked at the direction that the EU is moving in. Increasingly, the agenda is driven by European institutions which panders to the right rather than securing the social democratic advances that the British left would like to see.

As pro-Europeans of the left, we should ask ourselves whether it is really in our interest to support everything that is agreed by our governments in Brussels, or whether we should apply the same political criteria to European politics that we apply to our domestic politics.

Let us take the European Constitution. The debate that the Prime Minister initiated in the UK is essentially that we must agree to this constitution because there’s nothing too bad in it. As a starting point that just strikes me as the wrong attitude to take in politics.

But it gets worse. One of the main reasons, we are told, that the constitution is not bad, is that the Charter of Fundamental Rights will not apply to UK law. Indeed, the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary can (and do) argue this case with a great deal of justification. Tony Blair says the Charter won’t change our labour laws – the laws he has called “the most restrictive in the western world”. There will be a huge debate about whether he is right, and it will end up being decided by unaccountable judges in the European Court of Justice.

The Constitution is like a list of missed opportunities to do what the EU already does better. Where are the measures that reform the Common Agricultural Policy that rewards agribusiness for over production while small farmers go out of business every day? Where is the policy that conserves our precious depleted fish stocks while protecting hard-pressed costal communities?

It is probably fair to say that few people remember a move from the EU that has managed to illicit such a reaction of indifference and even hostility from the union movement, from Tony Woodley to Derek Simpson, key figures see little positive in the Constitution.

However, this is not just a story of missed opportunities.

There is much good about the Common Commercial Policy (CCP). But although it protects consumers from private monopolies, it also limits national governments from carrying out the sorts of national ownership policies that were normal just 20 years ago. The undermining of the postal monopoly, which is slowly undermining Royal Mail is an example of that.

The Constitution would extend CCP further, taking in health, education and broadcasting services. That will only lead to pressure for more competition and private provision in these sectors. As well as simply being wrong, that would also be dangerous for the EU. The EU already suffers from a perception that it is not really performing a useful task. It needs to focus on what it is already doing and do it better, not shift into new areas that would probably put it into conflict with the voters of Europe.

What’s more, even more aspects of policy could be brought into the EU without national parliaments necessarily having a say in the matter with the so-called “Passerelle clause” that would allow national leaders to agree policy changes without an automatic right for Parliaments to say yes or no.

If we are really committed to the European Union, then it is our duty to point out where new policies are taking the EU in the wrong direction. In the case of the Constitution, with an agenda of increasing militarisation and defence spending, of privatisation and even of undermining the parliamentary process, we should go beyond the pathetic “yes to Europe” versus “no to Europe” sloganeering that often passes for debate on the left. That means saying that the left can support a constitution that lays out the EU’s political system in an understandable way but accepting that constitution isn’t acceptable.

Graham Copp is Head of Research at the Centre for a Social Europe, a new left-of-centre think tank which promotes alternatives for the left on European politics.