Pro-Europeans must be sceptics too
Labour’s recent decision to join hardline anti-European Tories in voting for a freeze in the EU budget received a sniffy response from commentators and established pro-European grandees like Lord Mandelson. It was either dismissed as an act of base opportunism or taken as a hint that Labour might be drifting back into its old Eurosceptic habits. But these reactions revealed something peculiar about the issue of Europe that perhaps explains why the pro-European cause has struggled so badly in recent times.
When Alistair Darling passed through the division lobby with the SNP to vote against George Osborne’s budget earlier this year, no one thought to question his commitment to the United Kingdom. As chair of the Better Together campaign and the person leading efforts to keep Scotland in the Union, the idea that he was flirting with UK-scepticism would have been dismissed as absurd. Yet the parallel is almost exact.
It is possible, even commonplace, to combine a strong commitment to the UK with firm opposition to its government of the day. It’s only when it comes to Europe that issues of form and content become hopelessly fused. To be pro-European is to be in favour of Brussels and all its works; not just a budget that operates like a ratchet irrespective of wider financial conditions, but every new proposal for deeper integration, good or bad.
The effect of this is to make the pro-European case hostage to every foolish decision taken in the EU’s name and to drive everyone with a legitimate doubt about some aspect of EU policy into the camp of the antis. At a time when the European system is visibly malfunctioning to the obvious distress of so many, the consequences have been politically disastrous. Policy failure has become an existential threat to the eurozone and to Britain’s membership of the EU.
The problem, as David Marquand correctly identifies it in The End of the West, is that normal politics don’t function in the EU. There is little space for the peoples of Europe to debate their collective destiny and make choices about their future direction. There are mechanisms of democratic accountability involving a mix of intergovernmental bargaining, Commissioners appointed by elected governments and a directly elected European Parliament. But they are too complex and diffuse to generate the necessary consent. As a result, decision making becomes incremental and technocratic, presenting voters with a series of take-it-or-leave-it choices over which they exercise no real control.
The answer for me is the one favoured by Marquand and increasingly advocated by Tony Blair, among others, of having a directly elected EU President. That would allow European voters to choose between candidates offering different electoral programmes and create the space for normal politics to function. But a lot could be done before that point simply by changing the way that European politics is conducted and challenging the assumption that being pro-European means signing up unthinkingly to the Brussels consensus.
The truth is that Europe has been abysmally led for several years now. The extent of that leadership deficit became painfully apparent when the global financial crash revealed deep design flaws in the EU’s approach to monetary union. Forever shambling towards yesterday’s solution tomorrow, EU leaders have lacked the imagination and willpower to solve the continent’s problems and chart a path to recovery. A lot of unnecessary suffering has been the result.
But even before the crash, the EU was badly adrift under the feeble and ambitionless leadership of people like Angela Merkel and Nicholas Sarkozy. Economic and monetary union was launched without an economic component that might have prevented the kind of divergence that lies at the root of the eurozone’s difficulties. Little thought was given to how the free movement provisions designed for six countries at similar levels of economic development would work after the EU incorporated the impoverished countries of Central and Eastern Europe. The idea of a social Europe, envisaged by Jacques Delors as a balance to the single market, has been the casualty of a headlong rush towards liberalisation for its own sake.
All of this has happened under the leadership of the centre-right, and in that I include New Labour which usually showed more interest forming alliances with leaders like Jose Maria Aznar than with governments of the centre-left. It is a record Ed Miliband should feel free to condemn without worrying about accusations of playing to the Eurosceptic gallery. In the face of stagnation and decline, the responsible, pro-European thing to do is to set out the alternative.
Labour needs to become much more demanding about the kind of Europe it wants and much more sceptical about the Europe that’s currently on offer. Yes, we need the European Union to build our prosperity, increase our global influence and enable us to solve common problems. That case should be made forcefully and confidently. But it shouldn’t mean turning a blind eye to the EU’s increasingly obvious failings. If the only change on offer is the option of withdrawal, Britain’s days as a member of the EU could well be numbered.