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Ahead of tomorow night’s heavily billed speech in the Netherlands, the outline of Cameron’s Europe strategy has begun to emerge. He will use the threat of a UK referendum to try to repatriate some powers from Brussels. Conversely, he hopes that the prospect of Britain taking back some powers will be enough to dampen down demands for a referendum within the his own party, and amongst the grassroots of British conservatism.
Their are no prizes for guessing which powers the Tories are looking to win back. They are not, of course, looking to liberate trade unions from European restrictions on their ability to enforce collective bargaining agreements. Rather, the focus is upon freeing the hand of capital from those European laws, such as the working time directive, that offer (fairly minor) protections to people’s rights at work. This fits in with the government’s grander economic strategy, which is to bring about recovery by turning Britain into the sweatshop of Europe. By reducing regulation, cutting corporate taxes and attacking those protections still enjoyed by workers, the government believe that they can make Britain into an attractive field for investment, and ensure that the UKs goods remain competitive in a global marketplace that is increasingly shaped by the worlds dollar a day economies.
None of this is particularly appetizing for those of us who are looking to bring about a more socially just society. Yet it would be wholly mistaken to respond to Cameron’s machinations by simply saluting the EU and Britain’s place within it. To do so, is to ignore the huge democratic deficit that characterises the power of the European Commission over the policy of Britain and other member states. More importantly, nobody who wishes to alter the economic status quo can ignore the neo-liberal straightjacket into which British policy is constrained as long as the UK’s current relationship with Europe remains in its present form.
Locked into the status quo.
The fact is that Lisbon Treaty – Europe’s constitution – - represents a huge obstacle to the kind of interventionist policies that are necessary to build a more balanced, egalitarian economy, and to address the ongoing evil of mass unemployment. The EU’s highly restrictive laws against “state aid” could, for example, prevent a future British government from establishing public work schemes in areas of high unemployment. The same laws could prevent the UK government from using grants and subsidies to rebalance the British economy, should we struck by a biazrre desire to reorient our economy away from financial services. Meanwhile, we have recently (and unsurprisingly) seen a revival of interest in the old Labour idea of a public investment bank that could allocate scarce investment funds towards those fields of activity that deliver jobs and enhanced social welfare, rather than simply profit. Yet the scope of any such project would again be limited by a European Commission which, once again, treats cheap government backed loans as illegal “state aid” and punishes government’s accordingly.
Of course nobody is so naive as to imagine that the British government would be pushing through such socially useful measures, were it not for Britain’s membership of the EU. Yet for those of us who are demanding that our government does something to address that mass misery that the current order sustains, for those of us who do want to see a different kind of economy in Britain, the question of Europe cannot be sidestepped.
What we we should be demanding.
In this respect, the response to Cameron’s strategy is something of a no-brainer. The key question is which powers do we urgently need to repatriate. For the Tories, and their big business backers, this is about protecting the City from European regulation, and “winning back” the right to intensify exploitation. By contrast, we should be demanding that the British government takes back those powers that are necessary to build a better society – in other words, those powers of intervention that the our elected government must possess, if the shape of the British economy is to be determined by something other than markets and profits. If such a shift depends, ultimately, on a referendum to fundamentally alter Britain’s relationship with Europe, then so be it. It is up to the British people to decide whether they wish to be governed from Westminster, or by unelected Commissioners. The ability of the people to exercise at least some democratic control – however limited – over the governance of their economy, is, particularly in the present condition, a matter of urgency.
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