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What’s it all about Europe? Or How the Real Answer might be in the Yellow Wall in Dortmund.

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I was beginning to wonder whether it was just me who felt that the In or Out of Europe Campaigns were diminishing into something even less interesting than Eurovision Song Contest, as if that was at all possible.

This is possibly the most important decision any of us will have to make in our lifetime. But the debate so far has been reduced to economic and financial banalities with any human or social values ruthlessly syphoned out of consideration.

I was relieved to learn that I am not alone. Let me refer you to Andy Burnham in the Observer:

I can’t be the only one who is beginning to think that we have been here before: a business and political elite making a passionless case, trading in the currency of fear and seeking late deals to save the day.”

(31.1.16)

And even more pearls of wisdom from Andy.

“The EU referendum campaign feels like Scotland all over again. The difference is that, this time, the stakes are twice as high.”

Spot on Andy, but, as on other occasions, your comments stop short of a full analysis.

I know some of the exiles from across the Tweed now resident in the Derbyshire Dales will disagree with me, but the lesson I drew from the Scottish Independence Vote, not the No verdict but rather the strength and potency of the Yes vote, was this. You can tell Scotland as often as you like how much they depend on the Union. You can lecture the Scots as much as you like about how much the economy of an independent Scotland would suffer. They might even agree with you. But at the end of the day they felt much better by voting Yes. It liberated them. Especially, they felt it liberated them from the yoke of the English Tories, something Scotland has sought for years.

At the time I argued with many Scottish Labour Party members north and south of the border that Labour politicians were failing dismally to advance a radical or socialist case for remaining in the Union. It is no exaggeration to say we just regurgitated the Tory and Unionist lines and did their dirty work for them.  I have no doubt that most of the SNP are little more than political opportunists. That said there seemed to be a lot more socialist and radical teeth in the arguments for going alone. Sure enough, the Labour Party in Scotland and in the UK has paid the full cost for its diffidence. We lost Scotland and we lost the chance of a majority at Westminster.

So let’s turn to the unfurling debate on Europe. Just what is it about? And what role should the Labour Party play in it. At the moment that role seems to bottom out as whatever Alan Johnson, our In campaign spokesperson, defines it. And too often it reduces to an echo of the views spewed out by the Tory businessmen, like Lord Green, who are really leading the In Campaign – that being:

In Europe is Good for Business. Coming out will be Bad for Business.

I don’t happen to disagree with that almost Orwellian chorus. But as a socialist, I also feel that the way I vote in the referendum ought to be about more than what is good for business, and the needs of capitalism – British or European. Primarily, it should be about what people need and want irrespective of the European member state in which they are a citizen or a resident. Once again that is the element which is being viciously amputated by the mass media. As organisations that are firmly entrenched in the Capital establishment, the media are only interested in reporting the business and economic aspects of the argument and, in interviews, their questions tend to focus on these issues. Any attempt by the interviewee to shift the answer to what I would consider to be the more important issues is portrayed as an unwillingness, or inability, to answer the original question.

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That charge is clearly supported by Cameron’s efforts to renegotiate the terms of our membership, which has three prongs.

  • Firstly, Britain has to be free to share in the benefits of the EC but to opt out of anything that doesn’t suit us.

  • Secondly, the UK wants the EC to become more competitive which means shifting the balance more in favour of the bosses and further away from workers.

  • Finally, it is about allowing more freedom for capitalism to reproduce itself across the boundaries of Europe while drastically denying ordinary people that same right and even penalising them brutally if they try to uphold the principle of free movement.

This is nothing new to those of us in this country who have lived under Cameron and Osborne’s poisonous cloud since 2010, one that has become even more toxic in the last few months. It is probably a view which would be shared more widely by the Neo-liberal political leaders of other European states were their demographic and economic requirements different.

The problem for the Labour Party is sadly similar to the one we faced in the Scottish referendum. How do we campaign to stay in Europe while at the same time putting our own stamp on that campaign. And how can we sell the In campaign to British voters in a way which liberates them rather than further enslaves them to the shackles of capitalism?

Let me firmly nail my socialist colours to the European mast. I want us to stay in Europe. I want us to campaign across Europe for socialist values and socialist governments. I don’t want a Europe in which the prevailing ideology is an austerity regime which allows the rich to get richer while the poor get poorer.

I want to see a Europe in which workers dictate more of the agenda, which enables them better to defend their jobs, their wages and their rights in the workplace.

I want to see a European workshop in which the unions representing the same corporations across the border of European states can also combine in positively contributing to corporate plans, product and service development and cross-Europe employment agreements.

Such development showed their green shoots in the 1980’s but have been weeded out with the spread of Neo-liberalism. In advancing such views I owe more to the socialist lessons I learnt years back from Ken Coates than the little Englander socialism so often promoted by other heroes like Tony Benn. It is to New Labour’s eternal shame that Ken’s reward as our local MEP for promoting socialism and workers’ rights in Brussels and Strasburg was expulsion from the European Labour Group.

(For anyone not privileged to have known Ken, I would suggest reading his obituary at http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2010/jun/29/ken-coates-obituary and also looking at the paragraph in his Wikipedia entry about his work in the European Parliament https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ken_Coates)

Ken’s views of European socialism were admittedly easier to promote in the those days that they are now. In those days, Britain paid its dues to Europe but received enormous monetary benefits in return. Much of the costs of rebuilding the British industrial heartlands blitzed by Thatcher were funded by EC bequests, especially here in the East Midlands. Now the EC has grown to encompass the poorer economies of south and eastern Europe the priories are different with the bulk of the funding being redistributed to those economies. Sadly that seems to be one of the more jingoistic arguments of the right wing and nationalist bloc in this country for Brexit. “We put in but get nothing out!”  Why is that argument not shouted stridently in Germany? What the Brexit cavemen fail to comprehend is that Germany did not follow Thatcher in destroying its basic industries. Instead they developed long-term plans for defending and reinvigorating those industries as well as the more technological enterprises offered by the advent of the information revolution. When the new members of the EC came into Europe seeking to develop their own economies they were able to turn to German industries to provide the answers and reap the economic benefits in a way that Britain (apres Thatcher) could not.

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The other supposedly negative impact of the recent expansion of the EC has been the prospect of increasing movement of labour and people. Well, not people in general – more particularly working class people. Not the rich, of course. David, Boris and the Tories in general are only too happy for the rich, whatever their nationality, to occupy London. They will even reduce benefits and restrict affordable housing so that these new Londoners will not have to see anybody who does not fit into their social cache on their way to Harrods on the few days of the year they happen to reside in their £5m plus apartments and gated mansions. Just to encourage them further the Tories won’t expect them to pay taxed while they are here. They can continue to do what the Tories and their friends do – keep everything but the petty cash in off-shore tax havens.

No, it is the people with restricted funds they want to keep out. Those who might want to come here to find work and contribute to the UK’s prosperity and tax revenues. What’s their latest reworking of the qualifications for longer-term stay in the UK? You have to be earning more than £35k a year. It doesn’t matter if you are a nurse playing an essential part in the National Health Service the Tories are determined to destroy. “Not earning £35,000, sorry off you go. And by the way, the rent you paid is being tripled, just so that roughs like you are even less likely to be able to afford London."

And this really is the crux of Cameron’s programme for renegotiation of our EU membership. The need to appease those sections of the Tory Party who are even more Euro-sceptic  than he is, by keeping these “foreign scroungers” out of Britain. Rich foreign parasites, Yes; foreign scroungers, No! This is now the essential platform which Cameron is trying to sell to the other leaders of Europe. We want to appease UK racialists. We want to reduce the welfare budget to nil. Therefore we do want to let any more of your nationals into this country, merely because they have the aspiration to find work here, and contribute to our services and taxes. Doesn’t that go without saying? After all with aspirations like that they are likely to be socialists and we definitely do not want any more of them.

The sticking point at the moment seems to be that other members of the EU still want to be able to export their surplus labour and do not see that as a problem for Britain. They have not forgotten or ignored, as Cameron has, the statistical evidence that EU migrants contribute more to the UK economy than they take out.  In that context the proposed 4 year embargo on welfare benefits on EC migrants to Britain is a complete red herring. Most migrants do not claim welfare benefits, and those who do claim usually restrict themselves to working tax benefits to compensate for the low wages usually on offer from less than generous employers, and housing benefits to offset the high rents charged by avaricious landlords. The resolution which other leaders are currently offering Cameron is that he could have his way on the benefits embargo when, and if, the level of inward migration places an overlarge burden on our services and infrastructure. What they don’t seem to appreciate, in their generosity, is that our services and infrastructure are already creaking at the seams, not because of inward migration or an excessive welfare bill, but due solely to the austerity of the Tories and their neo-liberal impulse to destroy public services and leave everything to the private sector. That applies across to the board to health services, housing, education and care services.

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In the last few months Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell have been heard to challenge the Tories on most, if not all, of these points. But those views have not been incorporated into the In campaign which is still repeating the same old tune about what Britain’s industry needs. No surprise there. Neither do they seem to be making any headway into the small part of the In campaign led by Alan Johnson. The Labour spokesman was in the East Midlands recently visiting the David Nieper lingerie factory. The sort of photo opportunity which lends the inevitable comment about: “Labour Leader gets knickers in a twist.”  It wasn’t quite as bad as that but the snippet on the BBC local TV news had Labour’s spokesman smiling benignly while the factory boss berated the EC for its red tape in insisting that regular checks had to be made of a step ladder. Not quite the positive welcome our Alan had hoped for. But similarly not quite the positive message I had hoped to see him pushing.  As I said earlier, we cannot rely on the media to put across a fair view of the arguments.

So there we are. The most important debate this country has been promised in years and so far it has not even approached what could be described as a damp squib. There’s everything to play for and the danger is no one really knows what game they are meant to be playing. I have concentrated this critique on the Britain In corridors because that is where my instincts lie. There are no circumstances in which I would want to be out of Europe. But like Andy Burnham I can increasingly see a scenario in which the Brexit lobby wins by default.

On the one hand the Britain In campaign trumpets the needs of industry and the threat to jobs seemingly to the exclusion of all else. I have yet to hear it champion any of the things I happen to value about being in Europe. On the other the Brexit campaign peddles the same old xenophobic lies about foreigners pinching our jobs, our houses, scrounging benefits and increasing crime, changing the nature of our communities and institutions and so on. Or, if it is not any of those arguments, they can always fall back on the old stop-gaps about red-tape, increasing control by faceless bureaucrats and the charge that we are now ruled by Europe. None of those arguments have a shred of credibility. But how can the Tory-led Britain in campaign rebut the first set of accusations when its own efforts to reform Europe are largely predicated on an acceptance of those arguments?

The second set of charges are similarly difficult for the In Campaign to address effectively. They cohere around the fundamental issue of just who does govern Britain these days, and in whose interests. That is an issue which the British establishment will not wish to see explored in any depth. The first discovery will be that the Government which rules presently is nothing but a control mechanism for big business. - and not just domestic big business. The second discovery evidenced by the recent generous tax offer from HMRC to Google shows that the Government is also in the thrall of the large international corporations. The same corporations that pay so little tax in this country but exercise great influence over Ministers and Ministries. But isn’t that same charge equally applicable to Europe and its neo-liberal politicians and Commissioners. Haven’t they also just rolled over in bed with the transatlantic corporations in drafting the infamously business friendly Transatlantic Trade and Investment Treaty which cedes large areas of governmental decision marking to the international corporate lawyers.

At the moment, it is reassuring to know that there are Labour MEPs fighting to make changes to the TTIP draft particularly to have those sections that threaten public services removed from the treaty. What really scares me is the thought that without the Labour MEPs, the treaty is more likely to be approved with the offensive clauses and then we would be left in the Norway-Swizerland situation of having to accept everything in TTIP if we wish to continue trading freely with other EU countries.

So Jack and Jill in the streets are increasingly correct in feeling they no longer have any real say any more over what happens in their own country. But is anyone going to tell them that it is not totally the fault of the EC, or remind them they never had much influence before Britain joined the EC.

Come June I have no idea where the referendum will leave Britain. I have two very different images of where we will be:

  • The negative one is of English football supporters broadcasting their crude nationalism in European arenas strengthened  by a Britain which now (supposedly) stands proud and alone against the foreign hordes of the continental mass.
  • The positive one is where I stand again in the Yellow Wall at Borussia Dortmund whose fans this season, along with other Bundesliga fans, held up banners welcoming refugees, and join them in singing a rousing chorus (in English) of You’ll Never Walk Alone.

One side promises a crudely negative image of all our futures while the other offers as thoroughly hopeful one for all of us. I wish somehow that some of the positivity I have found on the terraces at Dortmund could be injected into the Britain In Campaign. But maybe I should just tell people to ignore all the politicians and get a feel of the real Europe at a Borussia Dortmund match.

But Europe should not just be about workers’ rights any more than it should be dictated by the demands of the boss class. It should be about a state of mind, about promoting harmony between people, about making us feel more human for the fact that we are working together rather than tearing ourselves apart. That again is where the Tories in this country are just so blinkered. When they applaud the fact that Europe has been largely spared disastrous wars over the last few decades they don’t acknowledge the part that the EC has played in that. Oh no, that has been because of the military vehicle they love called NATO. So why is it I feel safer under the EC umbrella than I have ever felt under the prospect of the nuclear mushroom threatened by NATO.

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commented 2016-02-21 21:43:54 +0000
This is a reply to Jenny Joy-Matthews comment rather than to Bob’s article. – Unfortunately, Jenny, I don’t think that we’re going to see the accurate comparison that you’d like to see. There are so many variables and arguments about what is a European cost and what isn’t that either side of the debate can produce figures that appear to support their view. I think that, in reality, AT THE MOMENT, we pay in slightly more tahn we get out in pure financial terms, but there have been times during our membership when it has been the other way round, and there may well be times in the future when we need help. On the second thing you’d like to see (as would many others), it is even more difficult as no-one really knows. It is unlikely that it would cost us less to do everything by ourselves but no-one can be absolutely certain. However, if we did try it, and it didn’t work, there would be no going back.
The big issue in my view is how it would affect us on a more human, easier to grasp scale. I remember sitting in queues at Dover waiting for a customs official to check my car to make sure I wasn’t carrying more than the three bottles of wine, one bottle of “fortified wine”, and one litre of spirits that were all I was allowed to bring in to the country without paying extra duty; I remember my kids being reluctant to call home from Europe because of the cost of calls; I remember having to register with police headquarters in Rome then Naples and then Florence, because in each place I was an alien staying for longer than four days. Many people have forgotten these inconveniences – I haven’t.
commented 2016-02-21 21:21:45 +0000
I completely agre with the sentiments expressed in this post. All we hear on the news is ‘Business – business – business’ and, even though as we find ourselves living in a capitalist society, businesses need to be successful, arguments can clearly be made both ways. What there can be no doubt about, however, is the human and social benefit we get from being part of the EU. I learnt far more from evenings spent with travellers from many different countries sharing a very cheap bottle of wine (or three) in Youth Hostels in many different European towns, than I did in all my years of school and university education. There were times when there would be people from eight or nine different countries together, none of whom spoke more than two languages, but we managed to co-operate and communicate and realised that there were very few real differences between us and that we could all get on together.
That didn’t make me any less English, or British but it did make me realise how European I was and I will do everything I can over the next few months to remain European – even though, when Cameron holds his pointless referendum, I will hopefully be watching England’s football team crush the teams of our continental rivals underfoot.
commented 2016-02-19 11:38:51 +0000
Thoughtful piece, would like to see accurate comparison of what we pay in versus what we get back. Would also like to see running costs of EU versus what we would have to spend to do same things ourself,.

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