The big Euro dilemma – Karl or Groucho?
Groucho Marx said that he wouldn't be a member of any club that was prepared to accept him; having read Cameron's letter setting out the changes he wants to see in the EU, I now feel a great deal of sympathy with Groucho Marx's view.
For as long as I can remember I have been a passionate supporter of the European project and proud to consider myself a European. At the moment, however, Cameron and his strategists seem to be doing everything they can to turn the EU into an institution which would be far more difficult to support.
My first reaction, a few months ago, when I first saw Cameron's aims set out in writing, albeit in general terms; was to think that I couldn't possibly vote for the Europe he wants.
Now that I've read his detailed proposals and had more time to reflect on the implications of a “No” vote, although I am deeply unhappy at some of the possible short term consequences, I believe that voting to stay in remains the best hope for ordinary people in the middle to long term.
Back in the nineteen-seventies when the last referendum was held,
the general tendency in our party was against membership, on the very good grounds that, as a body run by appointees, it was, effectively a body run by big business, for the benefit of big business. There was very little direct benefit to citizens in any of the member states at that time.
This changed in 1979 when direct elections to the European Parliament were introduced, allowing a democratic voice to be heard at last.
Despite the restrictions placed on the Parliament's powers and the primacy of the Council of Ministers, the legitimisation of the Parliament gave the people a voice and during the eighties and nineties when most member states had centre-left or centrist governments and, unlike in Britain, votes for the European Parliament in most countries were cast on policy grounds rather than as a meaningless protest against national governments, the Parliament was able to pass much of the legislation for the Social Chapter that was adopted here after the '97 General Election.
Enough of the history; let's look at Cameron's position and what he wants. His letter was split into four sections, setting out what he claims are essential reforms which will benefit all member states but without which he doesn't think he can recommend that Britain stays in.
- In his first section headed “Economic Governance” there is nothing that causes any problem: the seven bullet points that sum up what he wants in terms of Economic Governance are mainly common sense and could have been written by any Labour Chancellor.
- It is in the second section, on Competitiveness, where we start to find problems. The section begins and ends with sections which again sound mainly common sense but, before the end, he slips in
“...the burden from existing regulation is still too high. So the United Kingdom would like to see a target to cut the total burden on business,”
- what he is saying here, of course, is that he wants to withdraw from the Social Chapter:
* removing the right to paid holidays
* allowing the removal, or dilution of maternity and paternity benefits
* removing the limits to the maximum working week
* making privatisation easier to achieve, etc..
this is the sort of thing that makes my heart sink and initially made me feel it would be difficult to vote “Yes” if Cameron was happy with the deal.
But then, I realised that, if we do not vote for Europe because its regulations no longer protect us, we will place ourselves entirely at the mercy of Cameron's friends and their businesses, without there being any framework available for us to opt back into.
Cameron's third section on “Sovereignty” is the most dangerous, but also the least likely to be agreed by the other member states. Cameron argues that it is necessary to “end Britain's obligation to work towards an "ever closer union" as set out in the Treaty.” making “clear that this commitment will no longer apply to the United Kingdom... in a formal, legally-binding and irreversible way.” He wants this because the main beneficiaries of 'ever closer union' are us, the people.
This is also (in my view) the reason why his enormously rich friends who own, or control, most of the media are desperate to starve us of any news about the rest of Europe that isn't bad news.
It makes no difference at all to a Cameron, an Osborne or a Hunt whether or not they can use an EHIC card to obtain health treatment throughout Europe: they have their expensive private health insurances;
it doesn't matter to them if they have to consider expensive roaming charges before ringing back from holiday to check on an elderly parent's well-being – but it does to us; they will never (unfortunately) find themselves in the position of having to look for work abroad as in Auf Wiedersehen, Pet – many of us might!
Cameron wants “groups of national parliaments” to be able to “stop unwanted legislative proposals”
there is no explanation as to what this means:
- Who decides if a piece of legislation is “unwanted”?
- How many “national parliaments” are required?
- Does this mean that the decisions of our democratically elected MEPs can be overturned by a group of national governments that may only have the support of 24% of the electorate (as our beloved Tories do)?
Cameron's third point under “Sovereignty” is that he wants the EU's commitments to subsidiarity to be fully implemented; this is something that everyone throughout Europe can agree on and has been included by Cameron so that he can claim to have forced the other leaders to agree to some of his proposals.
I have already written more than I intended, so I will leave a detailed discussion of immigration until a future blog – suffice it to say, in case anyone hasn't read Cameron's letter, it is phrased in a way that will allow The Sun and The Mail to claim that Cameron wants to keep those nasty foreigners out, while other centre-right and right wing European leaders will agree to it as they will see it in terms of 'let's restrict free movement to rich people”.
Given the above, you may be asking why I will be voting to stay in the EU in Cameron's referendum whatever the outcome of his renegotiations?
There are two reasons really:
- The first is that I agree completely with the letter that our MEP Glenis Wilmot recently sent to all the national newspapers stating that there are no circumstances in which we would be better off outside Europe
- Secondly because I refuse to allow Cameron to drive me out of Europe in the same way as I refused to be driven out of the Labour Party by Blair and his illegal war.
It was the other Marx who wrote about 'the absolute inevitability of history' and I believe that the EU and its continual development as a Europe of the People is a necessary step on the way.
Phil Whitney (Constituency European Officer and Joint Constituency Vice-Chair)