George Foulkes, Chair of the Labour Movement for Europe Scotland, says if we see past the smears and fears of the Leave campaign we will find a vote to Remain endorses not just workplace rights and equality, but also the basic peace and prosperity upon which Europe has been rebuilt.
We find ourselves a little over one week from the referendum on the UK’s continued membership of the European Union. The campaign may not have been as long as the Scottish independence referendum but we have seen a condensed rerun of the same arguments concerning democracy, sovereignty and economics.
We are also witnessing a tightening of the polls as we race towards June 23rd.
At the Labour Movement for Europe Scotland (LMES) we knew we would need to learn the lessons of that 2014 plebiscite; we had to make a strong Labour case for solidarity beyond our own borders and it had to emphasise the positives as much as, if not more than, highlighting the potential risks.
We have tried to live up to that ambition and our events have focused on celebrating what we have helped to build and on the opportunities for further progressive reform we can achieve going forward.
Let’s take a look at where we have come from and what we have achieved before we assess the possibilities for the UK if we vote Remain or Leave.
1945. The Second World War came to an end in Europe. Alongside the euphoric relief that this nightmare was now over, there was a deep sense of hope that the devastation wrought by this conflict, and the First World War, could be avoided in future. It was following Europe’s longest, darkest night that a new dawn broke and the people of Europe decided a new path must be trod.
The EU we know today – the EU we have helped to create – arose from that post-war hope and the clear urgency of the need for peace. The nations of Europe, which for so long had used their power to dominate their competitors, would begin a journey that would see their power combined and amplified.
A union of nations that would pool their resources, share their risks and abide by an agreed set of rules. A community that would extend the hand of peace to its European neighbours and see it grow to 28 member states covering over 500 million people. A union that would, delivering on its promise of peace for three generations, and ultimately win the Nobel Peace Prize.
It was by making the nations of Europe rely on each other that war became “not merely unthinkable, but materially impossible”.
In order to maintain the strong relationship between peace and prosperity we needed democratic oversight. As Robert Schuman described it in 1950, a “High Authority” was required to ensure all members played by the rules and had a say in forming the regulations.
Peace and prosperity lie in parallel, running in the same direction like train tracks, united by strong political planks. To think we can remove just one of these vital components and still enjoy a stable a secure onward journey is almost fantastical.
One argument that is commonly used by proponents of Brexit or Lexit is that the EU is undemocratic, that the UK is powerless to stop the dictatorial machinations of Brussels, and that Europe is unreformable.
These charges don’t appear to stand up to scrutiny. The EU operates thanks to democratically elected national governments and directly elected Members of the European Parliament (MEPs). The European Commission – that “High Authority” Schuman spoke of – consists of 28 Commissioners, one from each Member State. They are nominated by the national governments and our MEPs interview them before voting on their inclusion in the Commission.
The UK has also been on the winning side of votes in the Council over 2000 times since 1999, losing only 56 times. It is simply untrue to say we can’t have our say and we are subjected to EU rules with which we do not agree. Far too often our national government has nationalised EU successes. We claim the good as our own doing but decry any perceived negative as an imposition by ‘bureaucratic Brussels’.
One of the other great myths is that the EU is incapable of reform. This argument falls on two counts. Firstly, the EU continually reforms its structures and procedures to adapt to public demand or economic/political conditions. In fact, thanks to the Lisbon Treaty, there is now a direct correlation between the result of the European Parliamentary elections and the Commission President.
Secondly, one of the key gripes of those in favour of leaving the EU is that we did not sign up to a political but an economic union. If this is the case, then how did a political union arise unless the EU was reformed? It is just one of the many glaring contradictions in the argument to leave the European Union.
Knowing the conditions that led to the creation of the EU and dispelling myths regarding its functionality are just part of the EU story. There is a Labour thread too that runs within the complex history of the EU.
The Labour Party and wider Labour movement have used the EU as a platform to transform workplace rights, social rights, environmental rights and at this very moment are working to reform economic practices. The Labour movement in this country and across the EU can be proud of what we have achieved together.
From health and safety legislation to paid annual leave, maternity and paternity rights to regular breaks at work and from equality of opportunity for men and women to the freedom to live, work or study anywhere in the EU we can see the fingerprints of the Labour movement. Is it any wonder the overwhelming weight of opinion on the question of our EU membership among trades unions is for us to remain?
I doubt many people advocating a vote to remain in the EU do so to maintain the status quo in Europe. That just simply isn’t an option for Labour-minded people. It is almost written in our DNA to seek reform that will positively impact on the widest group of people as possible.
The economic crash of 2008 shone a light on nefarious practices that had become the norm in our financial industries. What we now need to do is focus our attention not on apportioning blame to migrants or bureaucratic bullies for our woes, but come together as a movement, across the EU, to reform our economies and the way they operate.
It was a UK Labour MEP, Anneliese Dodds, who recently acted as Rapporteur on a report into tax avoidance and tax evasion. At the EU level we have the collective strength to take action on this global problem. The EU is the largest economy on the planet and measures to introduce transparency in these unjust tax practices should start here. We must play our full part in that. Leaving the EU does not bode well for those who seek tax justice, as our current government have stood as a roadblock to progress in this area.
And a rush to protectionism is not the answer for working people in the UK. It is not the lesson we should learn from the global crash of 2008. What we need to do is transform and renew our economy and do it to the benefit of over 500 million people. We will do so if we continue to stand with our sister parties and partners in the Labour movement across the member states.
Where LMES and the Labour IN campaigns promote a hopeful vision of a united Europe that tackles shared problems and enjoys shared prosperity, what are we met with from the Vote Leave side? What future is on offer that trumps the labour values of solidarity and unity? What arguments do we have that apparently show the internationalist case as one of fear?
Vote Leave, having comprehensively lost the economic argument weeks ago (90% of economists polled in a recent survey backed ‘Remain’), has descended into a campaign of smears and fears. Leaflets and infographics that seek to scare people with stories of tens of millions of Turkish immigrants battering down our doors to destroy our way of life, the continued use of discredited statistics (exposed by the UK Statistics Agency) and the ludicrous false-choice of ‘Taking Back Control’.
We are offered the Norway model, or the Albanian model, Canadian, Australian, Swiss… I lose track of which country other than our own we have to aspire to be after a while.
Norway is the oft-lauded example of a country that has control over its decision making yet still enjoys the benefits of access to the EU single market. It is ostensibly a strong argument: all the good bits and none of the perceived bad. It isn’t reflective of the reality however and that reality points to a clear incompatibility between two of the main arguments to leave.
Norway enjoys access to the single market but it must pay into the EU pot and it must abide by the rules of the single market. It has no say over the directives and regulations with which it must comply. That isn’t taking back control – it is giving it away. We would cede our sovereignty not regain it.
The main incompatibility between the Vote Leave arguments lies here: if we wish to leave the EU because of immigration then we cannot enjoy the kind of access to the single market that Norway does; they sign up to the freedom of movement of people.
To be offered – by Vote Leave – the chance to clamp down on immigration while simultaneously benefiting from access to the single market is disingenuous to say the least.
When making a case for a particular proposition it is important to strongly articulate your own vision, however it is wholly positive to point out the flaws in the arguments of your opponents. Campaigners for Vote Leave are unsure of what to offer and so they tell us we can have it all regardless of the reality. We can leave the EU and have access to the single market by signing up to rules we have no say over and basic fundamentals like freedom of movement, or we can leave the EU, pull up the drawbridge and shut ourselves off from the world markets because we fear migrants.
LMES and the wider Labour movement offer something more fulfilling than that future of fear and isolation. We propose to stand with our EU partners to tackle our shared problems; to work with others to build upon our joint successes; and to create a European Union that delivers peace and prosperity into the future.