Euroscepticism and the Left

Euroscepticism has a toxic image for many on the Left today, often associated with the right-wing rants of nationalist Tory backbenchers and UKIP. Since many Eurosceptics historically came from left-wingers opposing pro-business Heathites in the Tory party, it is unclear why left-wing Euroscepticism has dramatically declined. As an in-out referendum looks increasingly likely to counter UKIP’s attrition of the Tory vote, a critical left-wing analysis of Europe is badly needed. Many of the old Left’s criticisms of European integration remain relevant today.

Both Labour and the Tories have always been and remain divided on Europe because it transcends crude left-right politics. In the 1970’s and 1980’s, Eurosceptics typically came from radical elements of the Labour party such as Tony Benn, who saw European integration as a threat to socialism and social democracy. The Tory party was dominated by Europhile figures such as Edward Heath, who brought Britain into the EEC in 1973 on the grounds that a Common Market was good for business. Thatcher’s intransigence towards Europe in the 1980’s left her in a minority against Heathite Tories, but the party gradually became more Eurosceptic. Whilst the Major government tore itself apart arguing over Europe in the 1990’s, New Labour politicians branded themselves as outward-looking internationalists accepting the EU as an inevitable reality of the modern, globalised world. Within less than two decades, the major parties swapped their position on Europe. This is mysterious because it does not reflect a correspondingly significant shift in European institutions themselves- the EU is more pro-business and pro-free trade than ever before.

History shows that Eurosceptics are a diverse group; it is probably the only issue that Tony Benn and Margaret Thatcher agreed on, albeit for opposite reasons. Yet nationalists such as Nigel Farage and UKIP have recently dominated the debate on Euroscepticism, crowding out left-wing, progressive arguments against Europe. Labour can recapture the initiative and outflank the Tories by re-examining the two key reasons why they opposed European integration in the recent past: the EU threatens progressive policies, and the EU threatens democracy.

Europe is a major force in promoting ‘trade liberalisation’ in Europe and around the world, a euphemism for cuts in social programs, austerity, privatisation, and ‘opening up markets’ for Western big business, often at the expense of the ordinary worker and consumer. Working closely with bodies such as the IMF and WTO, it helps to form the disturbingly apolitical neoliberal consensus: free trade is unquestionably good and we just need unelected technocrats in international bodies to enforce it. This is enshrined in competition law, a major obstacle to economically left-wing policies.

Full-blown socialism, in the form of nationalising key industries, is downright illegal under competition law preventing state aid to industry. Even more moderate left-wing policies would face difficulties. Many people believe British railways should be re-nationalised after the disaster of privatisation; even Thatcher thought privatisation would be a step too far, after all. Yet, under competition law and specific Directives aimed at preventing monopolies in European railways, this may not be possible within the EU. The case for nationalised utilities such as electricity is also convincing, and would face similar problems. These are not radical, hard left views that infringe on democratic property rights, but special cases of natural monopoly where government intervention has a clear social and economic to make a market economy fairer, policies that were seen as obvious by all political parties after the Second World War.

The democratic argument is more broad; even the most ardent laissez-faire capitalist should support the democratic right for citizens to choose an alternative. Many areas of policy are now created in Europe: trade policy, employment law, business regulation, even taxation. Whatever you think of these policies, they are illegitimate if the institutions in which they are made do not have the clear consent of British citizens. Opinion polls regularly show a roughly even split for and against withdrawal, with a majority in favour of less powers for the EU. Decisions coming from the EU cannot be legitimate if half the population do not accept it even has the right to make decisions that affect them.
Democracy inevitably leads to a sizable portion of the electorate that disagree with government policy, but this is not the same as a situation where there is not a broad consensus about the institutions in which policy is made. Government NHS policy can still be legitimate even though most people are opposed to it, as long as there is broad acceptance of the democratic Westminster system of governance where MP’s win by plurality. However, a situation where there is widespread disagreement over the right of parliament to make legislation, and the right of the government to govern, would be illegitimate. The EU is analogous to the latter; people do not just oppose EU legislation, but oppose the right of the EU to even be involved in policy-making.

Besides the issue of illegitimacy, European institutions are democratically deficient. The European Parliament, though slightly more powerful since the Lisbon Treaty, remains a rubber stamp for decisions by the European Commission. The Council of Ministers gives a democratic gloss, but allows ministers to pass legislation beyond the scrutiny of national parliaments and the media at a level further removed from the electorate. Real power lies in the unelected European Commission, which both initiates and executes legislation. A stronger parliament and directly elected Commission would not necessarily make it legitimate if most British citizens still believed policy-making should remain with the British Parliament and government, but the outright anti-democratic nature of EU institutions makes the argument against the EU stronger. The democratic argument is independent of party politics, but disappointingly it is the Right that has made it most forcefully in recent years.

The acceptance of the EU by large elements of the British Left is surely not because the EU is more progressive or democratic than it was 30 years ago. Instead, the domestic political landscape seems to determine both parties policy on Europe. Labour tacticians should be convinced by the more cynical argument that if Labour called for a referendum and became more critical of Europe, they would devastatingly outflank the government, potentially leading to destabilising Tory infighting. With a historic referendum likely, left-wing, progressive criticisms of Europe remain relevant today, and should not be crowded out by the nationalist arguments of UKIP.


One response to “Euroscepticism and the Left”

  1. […] The EU obsession in British politics has come from overestimating its potential as either the source or solution to all political and economic problems. For the left in the 1970′s, Europe could destroy a fragile post-war Keynesian consensus; for the right, Europe was the economic and political shock therapy needed to cure Britain’s industrial problems. The roles reversed after the Thatcherite revolution: the left thought Europe could protect what was left of the welfare state, the right saw it as a barrier to reclaiming our national destiny. Some left-wing voices, like Bob Crow, still advocate EU withdrawal as EU austerity increasingly affects the Greek working classes. Left-wing criticisms of the EU are increasingly prominent, namely against the lack of democracy in Europe that hands all power to the executive, and can prevent even minor social-democratic policies like nationalising railways. […]