Wales and Europe: What’s at stake on 23 June?

Andy Bevan says the EU’s failures have given the left pause for thought.






EEC-protest-1975--Andy-Bevan

For historical and deeply moral reasons, the Tory Party lacks appeal in Wales, compared to its long-term electoral base in the English shires.  Yet, our future as EU citizens in Wales hinges on the 23 June gamble – a ploy to bury the rift in the Tory Party over Europe.  In The Guardian on 26 February, John Harris summed it up: “Though it will have profound consequences for the UK as a whole, the vote is essentially an English political event: an attempt to resolve English tensions within an essentially English party…”  And the problem is complicated by the fact that the EU Referendum is largely mediated, in Wales, by England-based mass media.

Europe: In or Out?

This week on Click on Wales we are debating whether Wales should remain in Europe ahead of the referendum on June 23rd.

You can read all of the series here.

Meanwhile, real thinkers at the very top of the City’s institutions and companies have worried for some time about the populist adventure which is the coming EU referendum – especially since the Leave campaign seems at present to be nudging ahead. This forms part of the background to recent developments around Boris Johnson and Michael Howard and their bandwagon, slowly gaining ground, behind the slogan “Vote Leave (for a second referendum)”!

Boris Johnson who, despite his pedigree and old school ties, is something of a loose cannon (and tainted with “ambition”), floated this idea as soon as he announced his support for the Leave campaign. Michael Howard was wheeled out on the Today programme on 26 February to add some dark gravitas and to explain that, if the Leave campaign won, Cameron (or his acolyte Osborne) would not have to be replaced immediately, presumably mollifying hedge fund managers who regard Boris as a risky, anti-third runway kind of bet. On the contrary, said Howard, Cameron would be just the chap to negotiate with the EU all over again and secure an even more Euro-sceptic set of opt-outs than the one he’s already got – if anyone in Europe wants to talk!

Whatever comes of these machinations, they show a high-handed disregard for “the people’s decision”.

It’s early days, of course. The Referendum  – the second in-out decision since Britain joined the EEC in 1973 – is still a way off. During the first of those referendums in June 1975, the battle lines were pretty clearly drawn. On the YES side were the Labour leadership, headed by Harold Wilson, Labour’s European Federalists (Roy Jenkins, Shirley Williams et al), the Liberals and the top leadership of the Tory Party and the CBI. Significantly, the whole of the mainstream press were in favour of staying in the EEC.

On the NO side were the Labour left, most of the trade unions and Enoch Powell – who enthused assorted, reactionary Little Englanders.

I was Chairman of the Labour Party Young Socialists at the time. Our main concerns in 1975 were twofold: to debunk the utopian dream, as we saw it, of a capitalist, united Europe (under capitalism, the rivalries of competing nation states would never be overcome, we said) and to differentiate ourselves from the British jingoism of the reactionary NO campaigners.  We also wanted to make it clear that we didn’t share the illusions in “parliamentary sovereignty” and “national interest” expounded by some on the left, or the bits of the Alternative Economic  Strategy which called for import controls. No, we said, working people can only have meaningful “sovereignty “  through socialist transformation.

So, we rallied in Trafalgar Square under a banner which read: “No to the Bosses’ EEC! Fight for a Socialist Europe!” Ours was an internationalist opposition to the EEC.

For the record, of course, we lost the referendum by 2-1. Since then, a lot has changed. First of all, the most “pro-European” and right-wing of the Labour leadership split in 1981 to form the SDP. A commitment to a Federal Europe was a key part of their platform.

After the decisive YES vote in 1975, Labour at Westminster more or less acquiesced in European membership, without too much enthusiasm. Meanwhile, the Tories became increasingly reluctant members of the European Community – and Europe became the chronic internal problem for them which it still is.

During the 1980s, though, the mood changed within the Labour movement. With Thatcher’s onslaught on trade union rights, jobs and social welfare, much of the Social Chapter message emanating from the European Commission of Jacques Delors began to look like some kind of relief. If the Sun headline was “Up Yours, Delors!”, maybe it was time to look again at the EU as a forum for the defence of social welfare and reform.

And so it has been for 30 years or so – except that the EU’s failure to implement a united and humanitarian response to the Syrian refugee crisis and the Eurozone’s harsh treatment of Greece, in particular since SYRIZA’s election victory in January 2015, has given the left all over Europe pause for thought. These issues have once more raised the question very sharply:  in whose interests is the EU run? The emergence of anti-austerity movements like PODEMOS in Spain and recent successes in Ireland for Sinn Fein and the Anti-Austerity Alliance/People before Profit have merely underlined the failures of traditional social democracy in Europe

The initiative of Yanis Varoufakis, Finance Minister in SYRIZA’s cabinet until his resignation half-way through 2015, to launch a new movement, DiEM25 (the Democracy in Europe Movement 2025) has again highlighted the absence of a coherent mass movement of opposition to the orthodox austerity programme of the ECB and the current  political leadership of the EU. At this stage, DiEM25 is little more than a seminar group, but they raise important questions which need to be answered by the labour movements of Europe.

Which brings us back to the referendum question.  In the run-up to 23 June, we face a polemic between Tory Euro-scepticism and outright anti-Europeanism, between Cameron/Osborne and Farage/Johnson. Note that there is no Jenkinsite pro-European option on offer – though Nicola Sturgeon effectively leads on the UK-wide social democratic, pro-European campaign so far – and certainly no socialist alternative on the ballot.

What does the future hold? Currently, 19 of the 28 EU member states are members of the Eurozone and 9 are not. Look more closely at those 9. The UK and Denmark have opt-outs guaranteeing that they can stay out of the Euro (Denmark initially voted against the Maastricht Treaty by referendum in 1981 to secure their opt-out) and Sweden has played a long game to keep their options open by deliberately not qualifying, long ago, for the previous ERM arrangement.  Apart from those three, the other non-Eurozone members are Poland, Czech, Hungary, Croatia, Romania and Bulgaria. Unless the Euro collapses, by 2019, probably 3 or 4 of those countries will have joined it. On that basis, there will be 22 or 23 Eurozone countries, 1 or 2 waiting to join and 3 or 4 determined “outsiders”. By that stage, whether the UK votes IN or OUT on 23 June, it will de facto be part of an “outer group” made up of 3 EEA countries (Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein) along with, probably, Denmark and, possibly, Sweden.

A “reformed” EU, a “people’s EU” might be popular, but David Cameron has never had this kind of Europe in mind. His “reforms” are just a sop to British nationalism and xenophobia generally.

Finally, a thought about Wales and Scotland specifically. Current polling tells us that the Scots are more heavily pro-EU than the UK population as a whole, though the position in Wales is less clear. There has been some speculation about the effect of a Leave vote on 23 June carried against a Scots majority who vote to stay in. That case, of course, would be complicated by the Michael Howard-type attempt to use an OUT vote to launch a second set of EU negotiations.

For the Tory grandees, though, the worst case scenario might be something else. The UK as a whole votes, by less than 2% say, to stay IN – but the majority is based on a strong majority of IN votes from Scotland and, perhaps, Wales, cancelling out a small majority in England who have voted to Leave. Now that would be a constitutional crisis and a nightmare for the Tory party!

Andy Bevan wrote the IWA's first Senedd Paper, A Real Citizen Service for Wales in 2014, based on 25 years' experience in international volunteering. From 1973-76, he was Chairman of the Young Socialists and was appointed Youth Officer by Labour's NEC (endorsed by Labour Party Conference) in 1976. He remained Youth Officer till 1988 and, for the last 5 years in post was elected Labour Party staff convenor.