Catherine Stihler has been a Labour MEP for Scotland since 1999. She says the left should embrace the EU and seek to reform it, arguing that the case for remaining at the heart of Europe is overwhelming.
The question the government have proposed for the referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union is: “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union?”
We should continue in our membership. However, to convince the majority of the electorate that “remain” is the correct answer, we must ask ourselves a slightly different question: why should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union?
There are, of course, many reasons to support retention of our place at the EU table. The EU offers Europe’s left the best long-term vehicle to reach our objectives. For those on the left, the reframed question above can only be answered by looking at the EU through the prism of social justice.
The past achievements of the EU in delivering a progressive agenda must be analysed, while the future capability to not only secure those reforms but also build upon them should be assessed.
The EU was established to create a lasting peace in Europe, enhance our politics and generate shared prosperity. Without the EU our peace, politics and prosperity would be threatened and reciprocally, without economic and political solidarity as well as an assured peace the EU would not survive. The idea that we remove the political leg of this tripod with no detriment to the integrity of the other legs is naïve.
In the aftermath of the Second World War, Europe was devastated. In financial terms the two World Wars were disastrous but in human terms the cost was catastrophic. After centuries of conflict between European nations peace could no longer be hoped for, it had to be realised.
On May 9th 1950, Robert Schuman, the French foreign minister, delivered one of the most important messages in European history to its people: The Schuman Declaration. From the shadows of a recent war-torn past came a plan that would shine a light of hope across the continent. There would be “peace in our time” and it would be a lasting peace.
The Schuman Declaration was measured without being short on vision. It was hopeful without being an impossible dream. War between France and Germany – for too long the main protagonists in European conflict – would become “not merely unthinkable, but materially impossible”.
As mentioned above, the three legs of peace, politics and prosperity that support the EU are all required to ensure a stable Europe. One cannot be removed without jeopardising the integrity of the others. In declaring the plan for peace, Schuman stressed the importance of integration on political and economic grounds in order to secure lasting harmony.
Schuman saw the pooling of production and the creation of a “High Authority” to govern the Member States as key first steps in building a body that would be “indispensible to the preservation of peace.”
The UK has benefited from a peaceful Europe and has played her part in securing that peace. Not just by ensuring Nazism was defeated in 1945, but subsequently we strengthened the ties of friendship with our European partners when we joined what is now the European Union in 1973.
We did so by adding our political and economic weight to a growing community that sought peace by pooling and sharing our production. It was a decision that has led to improved living standards at home and across other Member States.
The Member States of the EU should rely on each other and stand by each other. There are times when the needs of different Member States aren’t balanced sufficiently to meet this objective, but that is a reason for progressive reform of the EU not an argument for abandonment. You don’t improve the process of pooling resources by pulling your resources.
Politically the EU has travelled a great distance. There has been further political integration, but where powers reside is only one part of the equation; how power is wielded is the more critical variable. In Scotland the debate continues to rage over where power lies but the true test of governments is how they use the power they have.
The EU has witnessed great social change within its Member States and in many cases has been the driver of such change. Reforms have been delivered to benefit over five hundred million people in Europe. Action to tackle social, economic and environmental injustices have been delivered by people of a similar outlook coming together across nations to deliver progressive change for all.
The left in the UK who support withdrawal from the European Union need to take into account that the EU of the Social Chapter is not the Common Market of the 1970s. Deeper political co-operation has allowed the left in the UK to join forces with European counterparts to achieve protection for workers, for example, across the 28 Member States.
Splintering the left in Europe, scattering those of a progressive disposition, wouldn’t serve the objectives of the left but rather weaken attempts to affect change to the benefit of the many not the few. The UK leaving the EU (or the EU collapsing) would deprive the left of one voice to benefit one continent.
No longer could the left in the UK work with colleagues across Europe to drive progressive reforms. Instead the left would find itself isolated on these islands; weakened support from left of centre European partners for our struggles at home and a far less effective way of supporting working people beyond our borders on this continent.
The political opportunities that exist far outweigh the negatives of pooling political power. Reform can take time and it can involve compromise but being a part of that movement for change is vitally important. Politics isn’t about always getting what you want; that isn’t realistic. It is about coming together to promote issues and working to amend laws for the betterment of society.
We must recognise our shared struggles and work together, not only from Perth to Peebles, not even from Motherwell to Manchester, but from Paisley to Portsmouth and onto Paris, to achieve outcomes that benefit most people on this continent.
The EU and the UK would be diminished, politically, by a parting of ways. Rather than searching for the exit, the UK left must play a bigger role in shaping EU policy and lead the team not leave the playing field to the advantage of our opponents.
In order to deliver a left of centre agenda as comprehensively as possible, the EU must be financially strong. Over many years, and a series of economic and political reforms the EU has grown to be an incredibly strong economic area.
The combined economic output of EU Member States is approximately one quarter of the Earth’s total each year. This gives members of the union collective strength in a world with a rising number of large single-nation economies such as China, India, Brazil and Russia to add to the established large economies of the United States and Japan.
By pooling economic strength through the EU – as well as being one of the largest EU economies – the UK is well positioned to benefit from the opportunities generated by the EU’s collective financial strength in global competition for business, jobs, innovation, new technologies and research.
The UK is able to use its position as a global centre of capital to attract business, however the effect is amplified by the UK’s ability to offer non-EU businesses a gateway to a far larger economic area.
The EU is beginning to realise its ability to attract business must be coupled with tough rules to ensure that EU citizens feel benefits of increases in economic activity. The combined economic strength of Member States gives the EU the scope to make tougher, fairer rules on tax paying practices of businesses that operate here.
The current UK Government’s legal attempts to block such action should show the left that being a member of the EU is a safeguard against efforts to block progressive reforms in the financial sector. There is a long way to go on tax transparency but the EU offers the left a strong platform on which to seek reform.
Along with opportunities to improve the way our economy works, the EU delivers tangible benefits to UK citizens every day. Over half (fifty-two per cent) of UK trade goes to other EU countries and totals approximately four hundred billion pounds each year. This trade and the wider benefits the UK enjoys from EU membership support millions of jobs. The threat to these jobs should not be overlooked when the issue of withdrawal is raised.
Economic growth was a wish of Robert Schuman; however, he didn’t simply seek economic growth to benefit business interests. In his declaration he made clear his intention that the EU would contribute “to raising living standards” but added: “With increased resources Europe will be able to pursue … the development of the African continent.”
This is a task that must remain a focus of the European Union. Improved economic output that helps to raise living standards for those who reside in EU Member States is a worthwhile goal. Using the EU’s economic strength to improve living standards beyond its borders, particularly in Africa, is just as important.
The left must continue to agitate for the EU to deliver progressive social and economic changes in Africa as well as Europe. Africa is another continent that shows the scars of war and the EU should seek in Africa the same objective as Robert Schuman identified for post-war Europe, namely to make war impossible and not just unthinkable.
The opportunity for further progressive reform to the UK and the EU’s politics and finances should be grabbed and not walked away from. The left in Europe have achieved a great deal to secure peace, improve politics, increase prosperity and improve social standards. The EU has been a vehicle to reach those goals for the left in Europe.
The case for the UK staying in the EU is overwhelming when we consider the ‘why’ of membership. The history of success and the future of opportunity mean the left shouldn’t seek to leave the EU but rather embrace the possibilities that EU membership offers.