By Glyn Ford
The Labour Party and its pro-Europe campaign, Labour In, are struggling over how to handle the “Neville Chamberlain moment” on February 19, when – very likely – David Cameron will return from the Brussels’ European Council holding aloft his “non-aggression pact” signed by the Europe’s other 27 prime ministers, declaring: “It’s peace in our time” and telling a sceptical public: “You can all return and sleep quietly in your beds”. Brussels has caved in and the referendum is won.
How does Labour respond to Cameron’s chutzpah? The dilemma for the party and the Labour In, as framed by those at the top, is that Jeremy Corbyn has only two options. First, on behalf of the Labour Party, he can rubbish the deal, saying it demonstrates an abject failure by Cameron to deliver on his promised reforms. Or, second, he can congratulate Cameron on behalf of the people of Britain and the united Yes campaign on a job well done, and hunker down for the referendum.
Given those options, clearly there is little choice but to go with the latter. The first option would play totally into the hands of the Tory Euroceptics and UKIP, who will harmonise – in very different tones – to the same tune and will inevitably be saying their toxic versions of exactly the same message, though for different purposes.
Nevertheless, Labour will face the consequences of having knowingly jumped head first – rather than fallen – into the same trap that devastated the party in Scotland in the aftermath of the independence referendum. Labour, having once tragically branded itself as “red Tories”, will farcically repeat the mistake. UKIP will use that to tie Labour even more firmly into the cosy
consensus of Westminster’s out-of-touch politicians. Meanwhile, on the left, among trade union sceptics and doubters, among the unconvinced and uncertain, the message will be that Labour is colluding in a stitch-up at the expense of its voters and supporters.
The reality of Cameron’s demands is, at root, a mix of rhetoric and reaction. There are, first, trivial demands for an opt-out from the commitment to “ever-closer union”’, and a greater say for national parliaments in EU legislation. As the Attorney-General Jeremy Wright was told when he sought an audience last November with Koen Lenaerts, the Belgium President of the European Court of Justice, “ever-closer union” is just a pompous pretence with no leverage in law.
Concerning the greater say, there is already a “yellow card” system that EU member state parliaments can use to signal opposition to new EU legislative proposals, when a third of the member state parliaments express concern. Going further, when half of the Parliaments express concern, an “orange card” system triggers a fresh vote in the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament. If the yellow card system has only been triggered twice in the six years of its existence, its development into an orange card has never happened.
It goes unsaid that transforming a yellow or orange card to a red one poses more difficulties. In theory, it would require a treaty change, but a solemn declaration by the Commission that in the unlikely event of this happening, they would automatically withdraw the proposal in question, should suffice.
The demand for no discrimination against non-eurozone countries is asking for the bird already in the hand. It has already been agreed that with respect to financial services regulation – threatening Tory paymasters in the City – there will be the requirement of a double majority in the European Council, of both eurozone and non-eurozone countries.
If in these three areas, there is little difficulty in proclaiming Cameron’s perspicacity and genius, it’s the other two essentially reactionary demands that pose the real problem.
First, we have the demand to limit the number of “immigrants” coming to Britain, by withholding benefits for a minimum of four years. Here, there is the deliberate ghostly elision of two very different issues. The current refugee crisis that is driving an exodus of hundreds of thousands of men, women and children to seek their future in the EU, and which is simultaneously creating compassion and consternation across the continent, will not be turned aside by any such fixes.
After all, third country refugees and asylum seekers are already ineligible for such benefits. Rather, those for whom the measures are actually designed are those “getting on their bikes” – as Norman Tebbit once urged – and using low-cost airlines to seek work around the EU. Here, the gainers are the employers at the expense of the employees. If –and it’s a big if – after if the European Court of Justice decided that as “the guardians of the Union” they would reject any agreement that discriminated between EU citizens, if this came to pass, it would shift the balance of power in favour of employers, as sections of the workforce lost hold of one purchase of protectionn. Polish and German, Romanian and Portuguese workers – whether married to British citizens or not – would lose social protection, making them a more pliant workforce and less likely to complain, let alone strike.
For the roughly equal numbers of Brits abroad, there would be a simple reciprocity. Thus, this concession would result in the creation, in all the EU’s member states, of a pool of “second-class” workers, shifting the balance of forces in the labour market sharply in favour of the employers, and against the interests of British workers at home or abroad.
This amounts to a reinforcement of the European Court of Justice’s discriminatory interpretations of the Posted Worker Directives that have hit organised labour across the EU. This is why the European Parliament has indicated that it will only consider implementing any legislative changes after a British vote to remain in the EU, and not before.
Cameron’s demand for a more competitive Europe is seductive. If it means a massive increase in research and development spending at the expense of the Common Agricultural Policy, who could possibly be against? Yet this is the weasel word translation of Cameron’s initial demand for the undermining of Social Chapter protection of workers’ rights. If it comes to look as if a commitment to a more competitive Europe is not going to mean massively enhanced R&D budgets to boost the EU’s technological competitiveness but, rather, regulatory backsliding, it will be another nail in the coffin of trade union support.
The result may not shift any more unions into the Leave camp alongside the Fire Brigades Union and the Communication Workers Union but it will have a seriously adverse impact, draining away resources and effort from the Remain campaign as major unions such as Unite, alongside Labour activists, scale back on commitment of people and money for the “ground war” so necessary to insure a victory for the campaign to remain in the EU.
This is exactly where Labour is in danger of heading. Yet the formulation of Jeremy Corbyn’s options poses a false dichotomy. There is a third way – to coin a phrase. It is absolutely in the interests of Labour supporters to remain in the EU, despite Cameron’s concessions rather than because of them. The message should be: “We stay to create our Europe, not theirs”. Labour should pledge that those opt-outs with an adverse impact on the labour market will be torn up the next time Labour is in power, in the same way that Tony Blair did on entering office in 1997 when he dispensed with John Major’s precious Social Chapter opt out.
If we want to marshal our voters into the In camp, this has to be our message. The “red Tory” gambit wrecked Labour in Scotland. This time it threatens the breakup of Britain, as Brexit would be followed by Sentry – with Scotland entering the EU after a second independence referendum.
Glyn Ford is a fromer MEP for the South West & Gibraltar and a LME Executive member. This article was first published by Tribune Magazine.