When it can help for the UK to lose at Brussels

Martin Jones argues that it is in the Welsh interest to have more not less European integration

Plagued by political in-fighting, integration stalled, and economic growth halted. This was a common description of the European Community at the end of the 1970s. Yet it could just as easily describe many analyses of today’s European Union.

In the 1980s reform was needed if ‘Europe’ was to survive. Rescue came with the Single Europe Act in 1986, now broadly accepted as being one of the most significant moments in the history of the European Union. Many comparisons can be made with the malaise at the heart of the political and economic policies and institutions of Europe today.

In the 1980s there was widespread agreement that change was needed, but the prescriptions were diverse.  The Single European Act took place against a backdrop of competing priorities: nationalism versus supranationalism and neo-liberalism versus regulated capitalism. A stagnant Europe was split between competing political ideologies about its political and economic direction. Sound familiar?

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The successful negotiations that led to the Single European Act can be attributed to shrewd ambiguity. It allowed both camps – neo-liberal inter-governmentalists who supported power being concentrated at Member State level, led by Margaret Thatcher, and those who supported regulated capitalism with power being concentrated at the supranational level.

The institutional reforms that followed included a significant increase in the powers of the European Parliament. Meanwhile the creation of the Single Market in goods was accompanied by a deepening of political and social integration to act as a counter-weight to the inevitable conflicts that resulted from increased trans-national competition.

In a time where the European Union is being increasingly scapegoated as a regulatory break on economic prosperity, let us not forget that in the 1980s trades unions across Europe, including those affiliated to Labour in the UK, were so concerned about the erosion of employment rights that they opposed the Single European Act.

In the event, the European integration that took place in the 1980s and 1990s was a driver of economic prosperity and an engine for social and cultural cross-pollination. All benefited from cheaper goods more efficiently produced elsewhere in Europe, visa-free holidays, and the latest European cuisine. Today we would be much poorer were it not for the economic, social and cultural prosperity that membership of the European Union brings.

We need to make the progressive case for Europe – one that recognises its shortfalls and reacts in accordance with the times.  Previous UK Governments of all colours have acknowledged this case, from John Major continuing Thatcher’s legacy, to Blair and Brown more recently.  It would be  short-sighted and economically disastrous if the present UK Government, flanked by rising euroscepticism on its right pandered to those who would see Britain leave the Union. In those circumstances, if Britain wished to continue trading with the rest of Europe it would have to accept European regulations without having a voice in discussions when such rules are negotiated.

The Single Market in goods and services is not complete, as anyone wishing to bank with a non-UK European Bank or get a cheaper deal on their TV subscription to watch the Swans or Bluebirds play Premiership football next season from a German, Greek or Spanish provider will know (see here).

The UK needs to step-up and lead from the front in the reform of Europe and its institutions to allow a Single Market in Services to become a reality, rather than sniping from the sidelines when we don’t get everything on our negotiating wish-list.  Cameron and his government should recognise that the our interests are best served by participating fully in the European decision-making process.

We should not be contemplating throwing the baby out with the bathwater just because the institutions are not perfect.  If there is one thing the recent refusal of the UK Government to back a proposed EU ban on the use of pesticides that are wreaking havoc on bee populations shows, it is that sometimes the UK not having its own way can be a good thing. What we need is more Europe, not less.

Martin Jones is Branch Secretary to the Butetown Labour Party.

7 thoughts on “When it can help for the UK to lose at Brussels

  1. There is one problem that I have with the EU, and I am sure I am not alone. That is quite simply that I do not trust anything that the EU says. Much the same can be said about most of the UK politicians, which is one reason for the rise of UKIP. But seeing the economic and social madness being pursued by Brussels it is difficult to believe that even Wales could be worse out of the EU. Of course, it has always been highly advantageous for politicians to be part of the EU establishment as the pensions and all the perks associated with it are so good. Hence the desire of many countries to join, even if it was really not in the national interest.

  2. Colin is right. The EU’s Social Chapter, which attempts to improve workers pay and conditions, to protect them from unemployment, and to seek decent housing and conditions for all people, is a good indicator of this “madness pursued by Brussels”.

  3. Noel Thompson: be careful of irony. In my experience people don’t always get it and think you mean what you say. Colin Miles: it is difficult to believe Wales could be worse off outside the EU only if you are innumerate, daft or incorrigibly prejudiced. Wales as a recipient of objective 1 structural funds plus CAP payments gets far more from the EU in cash terms than Welsh taxes contribute to it. The UK as a whole would make budgetary savings outside the EU (which is not to say it would necessarily be better off) but if you think they would spend much of those savings replacing EU money to Wales you are very hopeful indeed. UKIP is the best thing that has happened to Plaid Cymru in ages.

  4. We can have a ‘single market’ – a customs union – using either EFTA or the EEA. The UK does not need the cost or the restrictive practices or the limitations to sovereignty inherent in the acquis of the EU, all of which can and should be repatriated to the UK Parliament..

    The claimed loss of negotiating rights arising from withdrawal from the EU is FUD. The UK would have more influence, and for our own national interest, by negotiating direct with the WTO and UNECE from where many of the EU’s rules and regulations originate in any case.

    The EU is quite simply a costly and damaging unnecessary layer of high inertia governance we would be better off without.

  5. JRW – Why then do so many countries still want to get into the EU? And why do countries like Norway and Switzerland, which opted to stay out, accept the great bulk of the single market regulations in order to participate in that market? There are not many clubs that give outsiders a better deal than they give members. I’d guess you have not done any kind of analysis and are just going on emotion. Fair enough but then some of us are emotionally committed to the idea of a united Europe.

  6. Oops! Sorry! I thought JRW was talking about the UK

    UKIP and English Euro-sceptics would be perfectly happy with the EU if we made just one little change – England ruled it like they do the UK.

    The only difference between the UK and Europe is the former exists by subjugation and the latter by co-operation.

    It’s true that that the weakness of Europe is that it’s strucure creates some inflexibility with regards to economics and structual changes. This could largely be put at the door of Thatcher and Major who preferred expansion before reform. With 27 members reform is very much more difficult, but maybe this was part of the plan.

    Even so, it’s the UK that we need to get out of not the EU. We could then negotiate an equitable relationship with England – which is what Euro-sceptics are so afraid of.

  7. JRW: The difference between a customs union and a single market is like the difference between the sun and the earth. A customs union only eliminates tariffs (which nowadays, after many rounds of international trade liberalization, are relatively low anyway). A single market – just like the single market between England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales – means common rules or mutual recognition of rules across a whole swathe of areas, so that a company in Cardiff can sell its wares just as easily to a consumer or business in Lille or Lund as it can to one in Newport or Newcastle.

    As RT points out, countries like Norway realise that the advantages of being part of the single market (but not, in fact, the customs union) are so great that they are willing to adopt all EU single market legislation without even being able to democratically influence it (ie, there are no Norwegian MEPs, no Norwegian members of the Council, and no Norwegian Commissioner).

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