A Rough Guide to the Issues, by Chris Owen
I think it’s fair to say that many Greens are conflicted, or confused (or both), when it comes to the many issues raised over our membership of the EU. It may well be that we get a referendum on the issue in the near future, so this is a good time for each of us to reflect on the issues and figure out what we really think. Many people will simply vote on “gut instinct”. But if you’d rather take a reasoned approach, I’ve written this article to present my own take on some of the core ideas which are often lost amongst the detail.
The EU as a Free Trade Zone
Globalisation and unrestricted free trade are, in general, a bad thing for ordinary working people. Look at what’s happened in the garment industry, where globalisation has taken hold. UK companies, burdened as they are with the need to provide half-decent wages and working conditions, and a safe working environment, cannot compete with Bangladesh. We get cheap clothes, at the cost of both British workers jobs and Bangladeshi workers lives.
The EU is a free trade zone with an important and unique difference: the countries of Europe have recognised that free trade can be a “race to the bottom” and have taken some elaborate steps to try and stop that happening. In an attempt to get the “best of both worlds”, EU members enter into a pact: in return for the (supposed) prize of unrestricted trade, each country agrees to abide by a complex array of laws and rules which are designed to “level the playing field” in an upward direction rather than a downward one.
This is the reason for all those EU laws that are so hated by UKIP and the Tory eurosceptics, such as the Working Time Directive. These laws, rather than being “unnecessary meddling from Brussels”, are a fundamental part of our contract with the EU. If one EU member country were unilaterally to decide to have laxer regulations on working conditions or safety, for example, they would likely gain an unfair economic advantage over their trading partners and the “race to the bottom” would start.
Loss of Sovereignty
Aside from “Brussels meddling and red tape”, another eurosceptic complaint is loss of sovereignty. This is a real issue (despite europhile attempts to gloss over it). In the UK we have been gradually ceding control, handing over more more and more of our law-making to the EU. It is also clear that much of the rest of Europe has a vision for this process of integration to continue. Opinions differ, but there are clearly some europhiles who would like to see the EU ultimately becoming a “United States of Europe”, with countries acting more like states within the USA.
Of course we are also part of the decision-making structure of the EU, so Brussels is also us! But there are genuine problems of democratic accountability in the EU’s decision making processes at present; and even if there issues were to be resolved, the large size of the region compared to the UK, and the mix of cultures within it, mean that decisions are further removed from the individual voter.
How you feel about the sovereignty issue is really rather personal to you. Laws are part of human culture, so it’s a question of what cultural grouping you strongly identify with: are you British or European? The Scottish referendum has thrown a spotlight on a similar dilemma: clearly most Scots feel more Scottish than British; but at the same time they recognised the advantages of being part of a larger political entity with correspondingly greater political and economic muscle. Brits as a whole may now have a similar choice to make when it comes to leaving the EU.
The instinctive position of Greens and others on the left has tended to be to reject nationalism; and to embrace the reality of our status as members of a wider humanity, sharing a single earth with our fellow human beings. Indeed, the urgent need to confront global issues, such as climate change and international corporate power, demand that we see ourselves in this way. Others look at the size and power of the UK compared to the larger world powers (especially the US, Russia and China) and conclude that clubbing together and working closely with other European countries is now the only practical way of influencing world affairs.
The Green Party Position
The Green Party rejects the idea that free trade is inherently valuable, and wants to see fundamental reform of the EU. Rather than promoting free trade and the economic interests of multinational corporations, we would like to see the EU bringing value to its member countries in the following ways:
- safeguarding basic human, social and political rights;
- bringing peace and security to Europe, by promoting greater understanding and friendship between its peoples;
- solving and preventing environmental problems, such as air pollution, which can best be resolved at the European level; and working together to combat climate change;
- promoting sustainable, non exploitative, self reliant local and regional economies;
- reducing inequalities of wealth, and disparities in quality of life, between the regions of Europe, and between Europe and the rest of the world;
- supporting a rich diversity of cultures;
- facilitating the exchange of ideas, technology and sustainable practices;
- promoting global co-operation.
We have always opposed Britain’s membership of the currency union, and do not want to see the EU becoming a “super-state”. We also propose a range of reforms to improve democratic accountability and devolve powers more locally where appropriate (see the Green Party Web Site for more detailed policies).
As to the question of Britain’s membership of the EU in its current form, the party’s current position is that we support the idea of a referendum, and that we would support a “yes” vote in such a referendum, notwithstanding our demands for root-and-branch reform as outlined above.
Where’s the EU Taking Us, and Do we Want to Go There?
A strong case can be made for reform of the EU in many different areas. The single currency was ill-thought-out, and we were lucky not to have been part of it. There are also worrying developments like TTIP which threaten to undermine the concept of levelling EU standards upward rather than downward. Greens are working hard within the EU to fight TTIP and to strengthen resolve on issues like climate change. We also strongly support a Europe-wide financial transaction tax (Tobin tax); something that the Con-Dem government has shamefully tried to block.
I would not in any way seek to defend the EU’s overweight bureaucracy, and it seems easy to find examples of wastage of public money. But it’s also important to keep things in perspective. The contributions we make to the EU, while large in absolute terms, are a relatively small percentage of our overall government budget; and while cost-benefit analyses inevitably get bogged down in detail, a convincing case can be made that we get value for money: economically, socially and culturally.
UKIP would like you to believe that the old left/right divisions in politics have somehow disappeared. That’s a smokescreen. If you want to take a political stance on anything, you have first to place yourself somewhere on that political spectrum. Do you believe that the state has an important role to play in supporting vulnerable civilians, that inequality is a problem, that taxation is an important part of civilised society, and that people and the environment should be prioritised over corporate profit and GDP growth? Or do you believe that government intervention needs to be minimised, that taxation and the state are unnecessary burdens to free enterprise? These questions will always be there.
The position of UKIP and the eurosceptics in the Tory party can be summed up in simple, old fashioned terms: Europe is not right-wing enough. They want to keep the free trade but believe they can ditch our commitment to the other side of the bargain. An exit from the EU would not, in the current political climate, be likely to lead to a move away from unrestrained capitalism and towards greater democratic accountability. Rather the opposite: such an exit would be seen as clearing the way for the UK to lurch to the right, following the lead of the US. Free from EU red tape, we could slash legislation on working conditions, health and safety, equal pay, maternity and paternity leave, reduction of carbon emissions, and so on. Business might benefit from some reduced costs, but would our country be a better place?
Business might benefit: but why are business leaders so emphatically and overwhelmingly pro-EU (as voiced by the CBI)? Because they realise that the idea of keeping free trade while ditching the EU’s rules may actually turn out to be impossible in practice. We would have to re-negotiate trade deals with Europe, as all current arrangements would be invalidated. Why would Europe be minded to give us a better deal that we get now? Would the resulting deals really allow us to be competitive against other EU nations who are constrained by the EU’s rules? Given that a UK exit would likely provoke real anger from the rest of the EU, how strong would our bargaining position really be?
My conclusion from all this is that, pragmatically, staying in the EU offers us a better chance for a Greener future. Our Green MEPs, as part of the larger Europe-wide Green group, are working hard from the inside to make the kind of changes we’d like to see.
Chris Owen December 2014