Can Europe Make It?

What should Corbyn demand of Europe?

To campaign for remaining in the EU without advancing a set of positive reforms that address its problems, would obviously be a non-starter. 

Luke Cooper
17 September 2015
Cameron addressing media in Berlin in May, 2015.

Cameron addressing media in Berlin in May, 2015.Demotix/Jakob Ratz. All rights reserved.Jeremy Corbyn has argued that the Labour Party should advance a set of demands, which can form an alternative to the anti-worker and anti-migrant measures David Cameron hopes to secure in his renegotiation of Britain’s relationship with the EU.    

After some confusion in the opening days of his leadership, and admitting that it is ‘a developing position’, Corbyn has told the BBC he could not envisage circumstances where he would campaign for Britain to leave the EU.

The move will be welcomed by those of us committed to campaigning across EU states, and beyond, for a social Europe – not the free market Europe we have. As Eunice Goes has argued, ‘timing is everything’ in politics, and Corbyn has the advantage that there is now a rising anti-neoliberal tide across Europe, including a diverse range of actors and parties with whom Labour could work to develop an alternative – even if, with the exception of Syriza, they are largely out of power.

Given the current dominance of the conservative, neoliberal right on European politics a set of radical proposals from the left could not be pursued in practice in the very short term, but could help reshape the terms of the wider debate. The challenge is to find measures that would, if acted on, improve the living standards of workers of whatever nationality living in Europe, and also demonstrate, by the failure of the neoliberal elite to address these issues, the need for more far-reaching social change.

A positive alternative set of demands would also put Cameron on the defensive and help consolidate opposition to the regressive set of opt outs that he wants. The alternative, to campaign for remaining in the EU without advancing a set of positive reforms that address its problems, would obviously be a non-starter.

Here are some suggestions for where Labour under Corbyn might begin.

No ordinary trade deal – stop TTIP

One of Cameron’s key demands in the negotiations with Europe is to see business ‘liberated from red tape’ and for ‘greater free trade with North America and Asia’. This is a thinly veiled reference for Europe to push on quickly with the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). Labelling TTIP a trade deal is highly misleading Labelling TTIP a trade deal is highly misleading given average tariffs levels between Europe and North America are already below three per cent. Instead its focus is on so-called ‘non-tariff barriers’ to trade, which is being used as a euphemism for the regulations Cameron derides as ‘red tape’. This includes food and product safety regulation, providing a legal framework cementing the marketisation of healthcare and other public services, and creating increased avenues for corporations to take legal action against governments they perceive to be unfairly hindering the profitability of their investments.

Much of what we know about TTIP is based on leaked reports as the negotiations themselves are shrouded in secrecy. The TTIP protocol even includes a clause safeguarding its investment protection measures for twenty years in the event of a state withdrawing from the agreement – an obvious, overt threat to democratic governance. Although it is in principle possible for a transatlantic agreement to level up environmental and social protections, this is not the direction of the current framework, neither is it likely in the context of the current strength of the political right in Europe and North America. While there is still no final agreement and the ratification process could take several years, Labour would be best advised to oppose it outright, as well as pursuing amendments to its most damaging aspects.  

Level workers’ rights up - not down

All European states have ratified the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and Council of Europe agreements securing freedom of association, the right to strike and collective bargaining. But there is a pattern of anti-worker labour reforms, as well as interpretations of existing directives by the European Court of Justice, that need to be turned on their head. The European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) has attacked the erosion of collective bargaining and the right to strike during the course of the financial crisis in a host of EU member states – often pursued under the pressure of ‘Stability and Convergence’ programmes drawn up by the European Commission.

Demanding an immediate end to this push for the liberalisation of labour markets in EU states could be combined with an agreement to work towards a tough new European directive on rights at work. This, in turn, could form part of a wider strategy to address falling real-term wage levels in the EU. Pursuing this on a Europe-wide level could also internationalise the campaign against Cameron’s Trade Union Bill – which introduces attacks unheard of in a democracy, going far further than any other EU state to a near-abolition of the right to strike.

Arguing for a pan-European levelling up of labour rights can also form part of a strategy to protect European migrants from exploitation in host countries. The EU courts, in rulings often cited by eurosceptics in the labour movement, interpreted the Posted Workers Directive as a ceiling, and not just a minimum standard of protection, for employees sent by employers overseas. By pushing for an amendment to reject this reading, Corbyn could show being pro-worker does not mean being anti-migrant. Corbyn could show being pro-worker does not mean being anti-migrant.

End ‘Fortress Europe’, support migrant and refugee rights

Few would deny that the most pressing immediate issue facing Europe is its refugee crisis. Its backdrop is the longer-term EU border policy, which has emphasised securing Europe’s perimeter, rather than creating legal, safe channels for those fleeing war and persecution. This has also involved ‘buffer state’ arrangements in which the EU funds non-member states to keep refugees from third countries within their own borders – a policy that contravenes Article 31 of the 1951 Refugee Convention which states that refugees should be facilitated if they wish to enter other countries.     

The most recent example of this overall focus on security, not protection, is the Commission’s European Agenda on Migration published in May that stressed a military-based ‘solution’ to the Mediterranean crisis, not a humanitarian one. Fortress Europe’s arrangements – employing armed staff, funding repatriation, constructing vast fences, etc. – are incredible costly, leading to €4 billion euros being allocated to the EU border security budget between 2007 and 2013. This summer’s crisis is essentially a product of this policy of closing safer routes into Europe, This summer’s crisis is essentially a product of this policy of closing safer routes into Europe forcing migrants and refugees to attempt more and more hazardous journeys.

Corbyn has a strong voting record on refugee and migrant rights, has already called for Britain to meet its obligations under the Refugee Convention and criticised the grossly inadequate government response. Now leader of the opposition he could make the formation of an alternative to ‘Fortress Europe’ a key plank of his platform for EU renegotiation. One starting point must be the repeal of EU Directive 2001/51/EC, which puts the costs of repatriating failed asylum claimants onto the carriers. It meant airline and ferry operators immediately stopped accepting those without the necessary papers, fuelling the black market in human trafficking. The removal of the directive could be combined with shifting funds away from the inhumane security policy towards resettlement and integration programmes.

But Corbyn must also resist the temptation of blaming Europe for Britain’s failures on these issues, especially given that the UK has an opt out from the original Schengen Agreement, which liberalised the internal border regime for signatory states but at the cost of increasing external border control. After all, it is not only that the UK’s response to the Syrian crisis is shamefully bad, but successive British governments have also presided over policies that have seen a collapse in the number of asylum claimants from 84,130 in 2002 to 24,914 in 2014, a sharp increase in the numbers being rejected, and the use of the inhumane practice of detaining refugees. In other words, campaigning for refugee and migrant rights very much ‘begins at home’.  

A European New Deal, for an industrial strategy and tax justice   

The critical area for EU-wide reform remains economic policy. Naturally, this is also the area in which the neoliberal assumptions underpinning the EU’s response to the crises in the Eurozone are most keenly felt. Quite rightly, Corbyn’s default position will be to challenge the austerity that has been brutally imposed on the peripheral Eurozone countries, especially Greece, and argue for an alternative economic strategy based on investment and growth – continuing the arguments he made successfully during his Labour leadership bid. As leader of the Labour Party, he may also be able to build a bridge between the radical left parties such as Syriza and Podemos, whose rise reflects the failure of the centre-left on austerity, and European social democracy. He would also have allies in the ETUC who are long standing supporters of a ‘Sustainable New Deal for Europe’ based on large-scale green investment.

Corbyn can help shape the debate with a proactive international intervention around the theme of a social Europe, but even if he wins the general election in 2020 Britain’s influence over the structural problems in the Eurozone is limited. A genuine break with austerity in Europe would require radical changes to the Maastricht Treaty, which imposes fiscal requirements necessitating austerity and created a supra-national economic authority, the ECB, to enforce them. They did so without any mechanisms for fiscal transfer to ease the pain – making it almost impossible for states to pursue an alternative economic strategy to neoliberalism. This creation of a structural imperative for austerity has clear parallels with the nineteenth century ‘Gold Standard’, which also favoured global financial interests. There is no getting around the fact the Maastricht framework represents a huge obstacle to a social Europe.

However, if Corbyn’s space to pursue a practical policy agenda on this front may be limited due to Britain’s position outside of the Eurozone, the country’s relative isolation from Europe is a clear virtue when it comes to campaigning for tax justice. the country’s relative isolation from Europe is a clear virtue when it comes to campaigning for tax justice. Britain is historically the most bitter opponent of creating Europe-wide tax arrangements to clampdown on avoidance and raise corporate tax revenues – as recently as June the British treasury said it would block EU plans to tackle tax avoidance. For Corbyn, his commitment to tax justice also requires Europe-wide action to be truly effective – a clear foundation for his support for EU membership.

Corbyn may well find that allies from across the European political spectrum, long frustrated with the British block on taking action on these issues, would respond positively to moves by Labour in this direction. As the world’s largest internal market, the EU has considerable potential power to develop progressive tax policies without fear of capital flight – as big capital needs to maintain a presence in Europe. Corbyn could advocate a pan-European increase in corporation tax levels to 40 per cent, aligning all EU states with the US rate. This would be a radical break with traditional British opposition to Europe-wide consolidation of corporate taxation rates. Similarly, the British have also been the most vocal opponents of the financial transaction tax, often referred to as the Robin Hood Tax, even attempting legal action against the eleven EU states planning to introduce a tax next year. Given public perceptions of the banking and financial sector, there is obvious domestic political capital to be made if Corbyn were to take a lead in promoting the Robin Hood Tax. 

All of the above points would require a stronger and more coherent European left to deliver, but they also pose the question of structural and institutional change to the EU. Democratising the institutions is clearly vital if Europe is going to ‘make it’. A key problem for supporters of European unity is that popular identification with it as a ‘project’ is conditional on its ability to deliver social justice.

Neoliberal austerity, in contrast, is destroying this appeal – pushing many voters to the nationalist right. Europe will only win popular support if it is seen to be a democratically run force for prosperity, not austerity – and it is clearly some way from this at the moment. But Corbyn is in a position now to take his place amongst a radical left who may prove to be the unlikely saviours of an EU that neoliberalism is putting under huge strain.

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