Dionyssis Dimitrakopoulos argues that there is a role for the left in the EU, but it can't take that up if it abdicates its voice.
Dr Dionyssis G. Dimitrakopoulos is a Senior Lecturer in Politics at Birkbeck College, University of London.
It has recently been argued that “the Left needs to find its voice on the EU”. This is right, but instead of simply jumping on the bandwagon of Tory Euroscepticism – which is arguably couched in a neo-liberal belief in unfettered markets – the Left’s stance ought to be based on an accurate understanding of the EU.
While it is true that – as Owen Jones put it – “It was the traumatising experience of Thatcherism that led to a sharp turnaround on the left,” one should also acknowledge that this did pay off in the form of legislation that has sought to improve the workers’ rights (on issues such as paid annual holidays via the Working Time Directive, improved conditions for agency workers etc.), especially when the European Commission was led by Jacques Delors, a French socialist who knew all about the limits of the notion of socialism in one country.
It has also been argued that “it is the left that is the standard-bearer of opposition to the EU project” in Scandinavian countries and France, but this is only partly true. The Left’s critique of the EU in these countries is more often than not concentrated on individual manifestations of European integration rather than the principle.
In France and several other European countries including, crucially, Germany, the parties of the Left are advocating more and better European integration, rather than retreat to the nation state not least because they realise that, due to their nature, many problems require solutions that go way beyond the capacities of individual countries, including, of course, mid-ranking powers such as Britain.
In terms of accountability, several crucial points ought to be made.
First, European integration does not eliminate the role of the state since national ministers, civil servants and diplomats play a significant role both when policies are made at the level of the EU and when they are implemented at the national level. This means that there is a lot that that can be done at the national level too.
After all, ‘the EU’ cannot and did not dictate to the Danish and the Austrian Parliaments to have more robust systems of scrutiny than the one used in Westminster.
Second, British governments have fought against the injection of a greater degree of transparency in EU proceedings.
Third, it was a New Labour government that decided to introduce the individual opt-out from key provisions of the Working Time Directive when it transposed that directive into UK law in 1998; the government of the Left in France did the exact opposite, and both positions were perfectly legal because in this case, as in many others, national governments have a degree of discretion.
In addition, the EU Treaty establishes a direct link between the outcome of European elections and the selection of the President of the European Commission, i.e. the central institution that has the power to make legislative proposals; it is not the EU’s fault that Gordon Brown and the Spanish Socialists broke ranks with the rest of the Party of European Socialists and thus undermined its effort to put up a joint candidate for this major post ahead of the European elections of 2009.
Brown opted for Jose Manuel Barroso because of his belief in free markets and the PSOE supported Barroso out of ‘Iberian solidarity’. Of course, it was also not “the EU” that compelled Gordon Brown to re-nominate Cathy Ashton thus ignoring the fact that his (and her) party won only 16.5 per cent of the vote in those elections.
Who was asked about this inside the Labour party and when? Indeed, what this particular incident shows is that – while one can complain endlessly about “the EU” – crucial decisions are made at the national level by party leaders who too often do not care as much as they should about the views of their own party.
Moreover, calling the European Parliament (EP) ‘largely toothless’ is proof of a deficient understanding of how the EU operates which, coupled with one-sided examples, can lead to wrong conclusions.
For a start, the European Court of Justice interprets and adjudicates on existing legal provisions. These are made by politicians but not only those who are elected in national elections. The introduction and subsequent reform of the co-decision procedure has taken significant powers away from the Council of Ministers and handed them over to the directly elected MEPs.
Under the Treaty of Lisbon the EP’s powers have been enhanced significantly. For example, it is now involved in the making of the Common Agricultural Policy and – crucially – it has veto power over the EU’s budget. In addition, under co-decision the EP’s internal rules of procedure make it easier to reach an agreement with the Council after the first reading of a legislative proposal because decisions can be reached by simple majority.
This means that if there is, say, a majority of social democrats, socialists, Greens etc. one kind of results will follow. Now that the EP is dominated by the centre-right and the liberals, a different set of results follow. In other words, who is elected in the EP is anything but a sideshow.
Rather, these are all very good reasons why the Left ought to be mobilized ahead of the next European elections instead of treating them as nothing more than second-order elections, i.e. an opportunity to give the incumbent national government a kicking (or the thumbs up), on grounds that often have very little if anything to do with the EU.
Reformists, in other words, should not fall in the trap of choosing one level (national or European) of action. Rather, they should remember that promoting the interests of the many requires the creation of majorities at each and every relevant level of government as opposed to choosing one to the detriment of the other, even if one were to forget about internationalism and solidarity.
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