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.

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