Britain’s role in the EU under the current Cameron Government is that of a petulant child which is throwing its toys out of the pram, rather than being a constructive partner in managing the challenges we all face. A potential future for Britain in Europe seems more at risk than for a long time – but is more necessary than ever.

It is up to the British opposition Labour Party and civil society organisations to ensure Britain’s future in Europe is based on cooperation and developing policy in partnership with peers across the EU. Traditionally, the role of the EU in Britain is discussed only in terms of the economy, whereas the role of Britain in Europe is discussed in terms of power politics.

EU-critics on the left argue that the EU is led by economic interests and that the business lobby has undue influence over EU policy. Quite on the contrary, neo-liberal, Conservative, and anti-state critics argue that the EU affects too many aspects of life rather than being about the market and free-trade, which allegedly was the ‘only’ reason why Britain ever joined the EU. Journalists, political activists and analysts in the UK are often stuck in the discursive mud between those two simplified and incorrect notions.

The economy is important, but the crash of 2007/08 showed us that a healthy, sustainable economy cannot live on short-termism, profit maximization and record shareholder value alone. A healthy economy also depends on having a skilled, dedicated workforce. A healthy economy also needs to exist in balance with social fairness, environmental sustainability and personal security.

Rather than reflecting this in how we discuss the EU, we have been led to fight a war of shadows. At a time when citizens are called upon to accept severe cuts to public services and their incomes, following the crisis of the global market, ‘national interest’ is the narrative smokescreen promoted to rally citizens behind. What gets edited out of the picture painted of a Europe which has undue influence on UK life, is that cooperation and solidarity on an EU-level is the best opportunity we have to regulate and manage the effects of globalisation on how normal citizens live, work and raise their families.

The strong-man-posturing Britain has adopted in its relationship with the EU has led the media and the public to believe that Europe is a zero-sum game where in any interaction somebody wins and somebody else loses. Europe is not a competition though. Approaching EU politics as a power struggle is fruitless, as no cooperation can be truly successful if some of the partners focus on power and dominance at all times rather than on sustainability and finding agreement.

How enlightened can a national interest be before it seizes to be a national interest and focuses on the interest of humanity at large?

We need to start to understand that a unilateral nationalist approach to labour markets and economic and environmental policies is no longer effective today. Even if Britain left the EU, it would still have to face the challenges of globalisation and climate change – but it would no longer have the same strong partners to help mitigate the effects of these challenges on its citizens.

With internal debate about the EU being at an all-time-low, there is no real productive role for Britain on a member-state-level to play in the EU at the moment. For many decades the UK was highly respected in Europe. An admiration for the Royal family, the image of the polite Englishman, Britain’s historical richness and even pop culture exports all combined to create a favourable view of the UK among European partners.

Quite in contrast, the Cameron Government has managed to loose much of this goodwill in a short amount of time. By simplistic threats, ill-equipped maneuvering and overall lack of team-spirit the UK has sidelined itself skillfully on the European level. You hear jokes about the Brits in Europe who behave like they still lived at the time of the Great War in average comedy programmes in many European countries these days.

At home, the neo-liberal UK government coalition faces the most pressure from the even more right-wing critics in the Conservative party who think Britain can once more rule the seven seas alone if it allies itself closer to rising economies in the old Commonwealth.

At the moment, some in the Labour Party seem to think they are in competition with the government in showing who better safeguards Britain’s national interest ‘against’ the EU. So far, Labour has not realised the chance to redefine the discourse about Europe and build a strong vision on a principle of fairness which its voters and the wider population want – in economic, social and environmental terms. Instead of writing occasional ‘pro-European’ articles which focus again on national interest, British Labour has to mainstream the European dimension in all the policy areas it discusses. When it talks about decent capitalism or a greener economy, or reducing inequalities, EU-level cooperation is one of the tools in the toolkit available to help tackle these.

We can only secure the sustainability of local and national policy by making sure it stands up on a pan-European level. We also need strong links to other parties and expert groups across the EU, so standards set cannot be undermined by global companies by just moving to another country. Policy needs to be coordinated and developed in partnership.

As national politics stands at the moment, it is up to the Labour Party, trade unions, co-operatives and other civil society organisations to work with partner organisations and peers across Europe to create new policies, new narratives, new partnerships. This is the only way how Britain can contribute to shaping the future impact of the world economy on Europe, and to the standards which Europe can design to shape the world economy.

By David Schoibl

This article was first published as part of the ‘Britain in Europe’ debate jointly organised by the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung London and Social Europe Journal.