Banbury Constituency Labour Party

Why We Should Stay in the EU? A personal view from James Urwick (Eurochampion for the Banbury Labour Party)



A personal view from James Urwick (Joint Eurochampions for the Labour Party in Banbury Constituency)

This statement focuses on the role of the European Union (EU) in promoting many of the political goals and values that are important for the Labour Party today. The emphasis is on principles rather than narrow considerations of material advantage, but some general economic issues are discussed under Point 8.

The eight points presented are:

  1. Strong international organisations for an interdependent world.
  2. Cohesion within the United Kingdom and cooperation with Ireland.
  3. Protection of the environment globally and nationally.
  4. The rights and welfare of employees.
  5. The health and welfare of consumers.
  6. International peace, security and justice.
  7. Promoting democratic, liberal and humanitarian values internationally.
  8. The economic benefits of the single market.

Point 1: Strong international organisation for an interdependent world

For humanity to have a chance of survival in the coming centuries, we need stronger, not weaker, international organisations and authorities. The greatest threats to our survival are from ecological disaster, wars between nation states and clandestine terrorism. In a world of superpowers, multinational corporations and rapid communications, national governments need to cooperate through regional and global organisations in order to have a chance of ensuring the welfare of their citizens. Of the many regional organisations of states formed in the past 60 years, the EU has been one of the most notable and successful – and for Europe it is the main ‘game in town’.

Some examples of the achievements of the EU, in the areas of environmental protection, employee welfare, consumer welfare, security and the advancement of democracy, are given under Points 3 to 7 below. British representatives, including those belonging to the Labour Party, have played an important part in these achievements, although as a country we could have done more. I believe that the referendum vote to remain in the EU should be the starting point for a new and more positive development of the British role in the EU.

In the constitution of the EU, there is a carefully defined division of authority between the Commission, the Council (of national heads of government and ministers) and the European Parliament, all underpinned by the European Court of Justice. Since the Treaty of Lisbon (2007), the enactment of legislation has depended equally on the Council and the Parliament. There is a compromise between l’Europe des patries (the Europe of nation states)[1], as represented in the Council, and the more direct representation of citizens in the Parliament.

The Commission is responsible for initiating EU legislation and for overseeing its implementation. The idea that the Commissioners are ‘people beyond our control’ is completely misleading: all of them (one per member country) are chosen by the Council and the President of the Commission is also subject to election by the Parliament.

Through the EU authorities, there is a limited pooling of national sovereignty. The EU has full control over its own customs union and common commercial policy. It shares responsibility with national governments in the areas of the internal market, social policy, the environment, agriculture, consumer protection, transport, energy, research, public health and development cooperation. Within the Council, the use of ‘qualified majority voting’ (QMV) is a rational approach which allows for effective action. It relates voting power to national population, but with a bias in favour of the smaller states. The national veto, however, can be used in a few critical areas such as taxation, foreign policy, defence and social security.

In recognising the balance of powers in the EU, Tony Blair emphasised in a speech of 2002 that the Council and the supranational institutions were ‘not in opposition to each other’, but both necessary ‘for the unique union of nations that is Europe to function’.[2] It has been all too easy for a succession of British Prime Ministers, including David Cameron, to play to nationalistic sentiment by saying that they would never agree to be part of a ‘federal super-state’. The ‘leave’ campaigners also play on this fear. We as citizens must see through this rhetoric. National politicians tend to be jealous of their own authority, but the EU and its legislation help to protect us in areas where national governments might otherwise be negligent or obstructive. The prospect of a ‘super-state’ is remote and the EU has a relatively small bureaucracy.

Point 2: Cohesion within the United Kingdom and cooperation with Ireland

The relevance of the EU to international cooperation applies within the British Isles as well as in the wider European context. Not only is the Irish Republic an important neighbour strongly committed to EU membership, but Scottish and Welsh citizens, by tradition, tend to value strong links with the European continent. The neglect of regional development by Westminster governments since the 1980s has also encouraged the regions furthest from London to look to the EU for possible development funding. In these circumstances and with an increased support for the Scottish and Welsh nationalist parties, continuing British membership of the EU is beneficial for the continuation of the United Kingdom (UK) as an entity. The ‘Leave’ campaigners, who claim to be patriotic, are in practice English nationalists for the most part and the parties in which they have the most support (UKIP and the Conservative Party) have little following in Scotland or Wales.

The implications of EU membership for Northern Ireland also need to be considered. The current peace settlement there depends vitally on the support of the Dublin government. Common membership of the EU is useful for Anglo-Irish cooperation and provides a potential source of support in the event of further threats to the peace in Northern Ireland. In addition, issues of border control and immigration, which are currently difficult to manage, require cooperation between the UK and Ireland within an EU framework. Above all, it is important for us to reject the kind of toxic English nationalism which has long been present in anti-immigrant politics and is now an element in the Brexit movement. Power-sharing at Stormont has come under considerable strain recently for local reasons and uncertainty about membership of the EU does not help the situation.

Point 3: Protection of the environment globally and locally

Responsible stewardship of the planet is an essential part of the modern Labour agenda, as, without it, there will be little prospect of achieving a fairer society or reducing poverty. The EU has been active in this area both globally and internally.

In the various summits on limiting climate change, which finally produced real progress at Paris in 2015, the EU has been far more influential as a unit than its component states could have been individually. Previously, in the 1990s, when action to reverse the depletion of the ozone layer was needed, the EU played a decisive part in obtaining global agreement on such action.

Within the EU there are at least 21 areas of environmental protection[3] in which Labour MEPs, as part of the socialist alliance in the European Parliament,[4] have contributed to legislation and regulation. There is a target for 20% of energy to come from renewable sources by 2020. There are regulations for the recycling of all electrical goods, disused vehicles and a large proportion of general waste. Emissions of greenhouse gases, as well as harmful exhaust emissions from vehicles and ships, are being reduced progressively. More environmental information is available to consumers through eco-labelling and a European register on pollution.

It is unlikely that such a level of protection would be offered by individual national governments, especially those with ‘free market’ ideologies. One illustration of the point is that, in 2015, the British government produced a new draft national plan for air quality only as a direct result of being found by the Supreme Court to be in breach of the EU Air Quality Directive. The standards set for air quality earlier, in the Environment Act of 1995, were also influenced by European law.[5]

Point 4: The rights and welfare of employees

The welfare of workers being the oldest Labour Party priority, the Labour government which came to power in 1997 signed the UK up to the EU Social Chapter, reversing the opt-out secured by a Conservative government in the Maastricht Treaty of 1990. The Chapter is an agreement to have a common legislative framework in certain areas of social policy. In the areas of equal opportunities, working conditions, ‘information and consultation’ and measures to re-engage the unemployed, the Council can take decisions by QMV.[6] The Social Chapter has helped to secure a general right of workers to leave for childcare purposes (effective in the UK from 1999), a 48-hour limit to the working week and four weeks of annual paid leave (effective from 2003).[7]

Since then, Labour MEPs have helped in strengthening the protection provided by the Chapter. For example, EU legislation has improved the ability of employees to prove discrimination in the workplace. Other measures have improved the entitlements of part-time and temporary employees. Providers of cross-border services have to respect labour laws in the host country.[8]

Several years ago David Cameron expressed an intention to withdraw the UK from the Social Chapter: but he did not dare to attempt this in the recent negotiations. British Tory MEPs, as members of a relatively small alliance in the European Parliament,[9] will find it relatively difficult to reduce employees’ rights within the EU.

Point 5: The health and the welfare of consumers

The EU authorities have taken many steps to protect the health and welfare of citizens, especially in their role as consumers. National governments left to themselves would not necessarily provide such extensive protection because of the influence of self-interested industrial lobbyists.

The mechanisms for implementation include a European Food Safety Agency and a Europe-wide system for controlling chemicals. A ban on tobacco advertising, and clearer food labelling, have been introduced. Particular attention is given to the interests of vulnerable groups such as children and people with disabilities. For example, the manufacture of children’s toys and childcare articles is strictly regulated to exclude dangerous substances. Urban buses have to be fitted with a ramp or lift for the benefit of people with mobility problems.

Labour MEPs have in recent years taken part in initiating and enacting these protective measures. They have also supported the extension of the single market to services, to the financial advantage of consumers. By opening up the telecommunications market, the European Parliament has helped to reduce the cost of internet access and phone calls.

These regulations made in the interests of citizens in general, with special attention to vulnerable groups, are very consistent with Labour principles of welfare and equity.

Point 6: International peace, security and justice

The development of the Common Market and then the EU has profoundly changed the character of international relations within Europe to a more peaceful pattern. Within this framework of cooperation, the economic strength of Germany (especially since reunification) is generally seen as an asset rather than a threat by neighbouring countries. British political leaders such as John Major and Tony Blair have understood this aspect of the EU and the importance of British participation for its political stability. The present Tory leadership, unfortunately, has tended to have little more than a ‘shopping list’ approach to membership.

The EU also provides a basis for cooperation in defence, which is likely to become more necessary in the future. In the post-Soviet era the EU expanded eastwards, with the encouragement of the British governments led by Major and Blair. However, because of the revival of authoritarianism and aggressive nationalism in Russia, the EU has used both diplomacy and economic sanctions in order to protect the eastern states. British governments have tended to insist on the primacy of NATO in defence: but it would be unwise in the long term to depend only on NATO or the presumed ‘special’ Anglo-American relationship. The xenophobic and potentially isolationist trends in Republican politics in the USA, as exemplified by Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, make this all too clear. The shared values of EU countries (see Point 7) provide a basis for cooperation in defence as in other areas.

The EU has taken many steps to improve internal security. For dealing with cross-border crime and fugitives from justice, there is a European arrest warrant and a judicial unit (Eurojust) which helps to coordinate cross-border investigations. These are also achievements of the European Parliament, to which Labour MEPs have contributed. They have been useful for recent action against terrorists. Other legislation has provided measures to tackle money laundering and cross-border fraud in e-commerce.

One of the most challenging areas for EU policy and law has been that of migration and rights of residence, both for migrants who are EU citizens and for immigrants from outside the EU. One major challenge has been to maintain the core right of EU citizens to freedom of movement, in spite of problems of social integration and national differences in standard of living.

For eight eastern European countries which became members in 2004, there were transitional arrangements which restricted free movement within the EU for a period of seven years. Only three governments of EU countries – those of the UK, Ireland and Sweden – chose not to apply these restrictions. The surge in immigration to the UK from the eight countries which followed was, therefore, a result of British policy to some extent. This supposed ‘Labour mistake’ of 2004 was defensible from an economic point of view, but may have fuelled the rise of UKIP and of anti-immigrant politics in the UK. In 2007 the government did apply the transitional period for Bulgarian and Romanian immigrants: but soon afterwards the economic crisis gave a further boost to right-wing populist movements, in the UK and elsewhere. Over the past six years politicians of the far right have portrayed the EU as the main source of an unwanted immigration, while the Home Office under the Coalition and Conservative governments has been obsessed with reducing immigration, even at considerable economic cost.

It is misleading for ‘Leave’ campaigners to assume that the UK could, by leaving the EU, significantly restrict the immigration rights of continental Europeans. Outside the EU, the UK would for reasons of economic survival wish to remain a member of the European Economic Area (EEA) and the EEA agreement provides the same free movement rights as those enjoyed by EU citizens.[10] Indeed, outside the EU, the UK might have even less capacity to negotiate any restriction of those rights.

David Cameron went to great lengths in recent months to negotiate a long waiting period for EU immigrants’ access to welfare benefits in the UK. Labour Party members need to be concerned about the possible extreme hardship that could result from this, as well as evidence that the British government has failed to prevent serious exploitation of immigrant workers.[11] The risk of retaliatory measures against British nationals working elsewhere should also be considered.

Point 7: Promoting democratic, liberal and humanitarian values internationally

To a greater extent than most regional organisations of states, the EU is committed to shared values. Anne Applebaum describes it as ‘the only international organisation explicitly committed both to democratic government and to rule-based markets in Europe’.[12] These are also core commitments of the Labour Party today. Points 3-6 above have shown the ability of the EU authorities to regulate economic activity in the interests of social welfare and a sustainable environment.

In the UK we tend to take democratic and liberal institutions for granted: but the EU reinforces them in parts of Europe which were only freed from dictatorship in the last quarter of the twentieth century. This refers to the Iberian Peninsula and the countries that were formerly under Soviet domination or part of Yugoslavia. The British people should take seriously their own contribution to maintaining this democratic order, from a position of strength within the EU. Democratic institutions and respect for civil and human rights are requirements for membership. National governments within the EU that disregard these rights can be challenged by the EU authorities, as in the recent case of the Polish government’s restriction of media rights. The EU authorities have also taken action against abuses by governments outside the EU, as in the case of sanctions against the governments of Russia, Myanmar and Zimbabwe. The European Parliament recently voted by a huge majority for member governments to halt their military cooperation with the repressive regime in Egypt.[13]

As the EU authorities tried to deal with the awkward, pre-referendum British demands for special treatment, in recent months, the refugee crisis was their most urgent problem. They have tried to provide responsible leadership, but with limited cooperation from national governments. Under the Treaty of Amsterdam (1997) the EU has legislative competence in asylum matters and has been developing a Common European Asylum System (CEAS). Its efforts in this area have been generally consistent with the Refugee Convention and with recognised human rights.[14] However, attempts to reform the ‘Dublin system’, under which states on the periphery of the EU have the main responsibility for processing refugees’ claims for asylum, have been criticised as inadequate.[15] The British government, which partially participates in CEAS and the Dublin system, has made matters worse, since 2012, by reducing the access of asylum seekers to legal aid.

The lack of British government cooperation with the EU in the areas of migration, border control and the reception of refugees has been especially marked since 2010. The underlying problem has been the Conservative obsession with reducing immigration, which is increasingly out of touch with the main problems that Europe (including the UK) faces. The Cameron government has responded to the refugee crisis by saying that it vindicates Britain’s opt-out from the Schengen Area (the area normally without internal border controls) and by refusing to cooperate with the EU’s initiative for the sharing of asylum seekers. This illustrates the point that the inconsistencies in Europe’s response to the refugee crisis have been caused by national governments (especially our own) rather than the EU authorities.

Another area in which the EU has represented humanitarian values is that of aid for development in low-income countries. In support of the Millennium Development Goals, it has coordinated a significant part of member countries aid, both financial and technical. The EU Agenda for Action on Democracy Support links aid to the promotion of democratic governance and has been supported by Labour MEPs.12

Point 8: The economic benefits of the single market

For a long time too much of the British discussion about membership of the EU has shown a ‘financial balance sheet’ mentality and this is why I have, so far, emphasised peace, rights, welfare and values. But, if we assume that economic prosperity makes it easier for Labour goals of employment, welfare and equity to be achieved, the major benefits of the EU as a single market deserve mention. Successive British governments (even the one led by Margaret Thatcher) have helped to construct the single market, which is now comprehensive in scope. It facilitates the movement of goods, services, capital, skilled labour, students and tourists across a continent with 500 million inhabitants.

With regard to trade, the briefing provided by our Labour MEP (for the South-East of England) points out that nearly half of all British exports are sold within the EU – and 88% of the exports from small and medium-sized enterprises. The briefing estimates that, in Oxfordshire, ‘up to 41,779 jobs could be dependent on trade with the EU.[16] Both the Confederation of British Industries and Sir John Major (who was closely involved in the negotiation of the Maastricht Treaty) have warned that, if we left the EU, re-negotiation of terms of trade would be lengthy and hazardous.[17]

In general terms the value of EU membership for investment in the UK is both direct and indirect. There is important EU funding for scientific research, regional development and renewable energy projects. Universities in the South-East received about £100 million in EU grants in the academic year 2013-14, while Oxford University in particular received £53 million for research.[18] But the indirect value of EU membership for encouraging private investment in the UK is probably even more important from an economic perspective. Some major multi-national corporations that are established in the UK might transfer operations and jobs to other countries in the event of ‘Brexit’.

One of Britain’s most successful areas of international service provision is higher education, in which the European dimension has become very important. The presence of a substantial number of non-UK EU students in our universities (about 125,000 in 2014-15[19]) strengthens postgraduate programmes and is beneficial to the economy. Erasmus Travel Grants (for which Oxford University received £530,000 in 2013-14[20]) enable undergraduates to study for a year in another EU country. All these arrangements are dependent on membership of the EU.

The movement of skilled workers and tourists is also valuable for the British economy and we should not be misled by the attempts of Tory and UKIP politicians to foster the fear of immigration. The construction industry has made considerable use of skilled immigrant workers, who have thus contributed to our economic recovery since 2009. British migrants to other parts of the EU are roughly as numerous as the immigrants from the same area. Tourists also move in both directions, with the advantages of EU citizenship and health care rights. The South-East gains about half of its tourist related income from EU visitors.[21]

As one of the world’s major national economies, the UK has always been a net contributor to the EU budget. This is justifiable, partly because we gain so much through trade and investment, but also because of the developmental needs of the poorer members of the EU in Eastern and Southern Europe. While the EU would certainly survive without the UK, it benefits substantially from our economic participation. This, as well as the national interest, ought to be an important consideration for those who support Labour values. The European project is a great step forward in recent history and deserves our support.

[1] The phrase is that of de Gaulle, but the concept has also been favoured by British Prime Ministers.

[2] Tony Blair, quoted in Stephen Wall, A Stranger in Europe (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), p. 182.

[3]European Parliamentary Labour Party, Labour MEPs: Over 100 Achievements (Brussels: PES, 2016).

[4]Now named the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats, the second largest political group in the Parliament.

[5]Environmental Protection UK, Air Pollution Laws (accessed on-line).

[6] European Union, Facts about the ‘Social Chapter’, Memo 97/13 (accessed on-line).

[7] European Observatory of Working Life, The EU Parental Leave Agreement and Directive: Implications for National Law and Practice (1998) (accessed on-line); European Commission, Working Conditions – Working time Directive (accessed on-line).

[8]European Parliamentary Labour Party (Note 3).

[9] The European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group has only 76 MEPs, compared with 190 MEPs for the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D).

[10] C. Costello and E. Hancox, The UK, EU Citizenship and Free Movement of Persons (Oxford: The Migration Observatory, 2014), p. 4.

[11] Costello and Hancox (Note 10), p. 5.

[12] Anne Applebaum, ‘Leaving the EU will weaken Britain and its place in Europe’, Evening Standard, 7 March 2016, p. 14.

[13] Hélène Sallon, ‘Le Parlement européen épingle l’Egypte sur les droits de l’homme’, Le Monde, 12 March 2016.

[14] C, Costello and E. Hancox, The UK, the Common European Asylum System and EU Immigration Law (Oxord: The Migration Observatory, 2014), p. 4.

[15] Costello and Hancox (Note 13), p. 5.

[16]Oxfordshire Briefing, notes supplied by Anneliese Dodds, MEP, pp. 1-2.

[17] Ben Chu, ‘CBI warns of possible £100bn Brexit cost’, I: The Essential Daily Briefing (I), 21 March 2016, p. 7; Ryan Wilkinson, ‘“Delusional” Leave campaign ignores risks, says Major’, Independent Newssheet (I), 21 March 2016, p. 7.

[18]Oxfordshire Briefing (Note 15), p. 3.

[19] Data from the UK Council for International Student Affairs (accessed on-line).

[20]Oxfordshire Briefing (Note 15), p. 3.

[21]Oxfordshire Briefing (Note 15), p. 10.

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