Now is not the time to pull up the drawbridge on the European Union
The list of conditions presented to the Greek government on Sunday night as an ultimatum for releasing funds have been described as ‘brutal’ and born out of ‘pure vindictiveness’. This was an offer that, to the thousands of Greeks who voted ‘Oxi’ to yet more austerity in the referendum of 5 July, laughs in the face of their plight.
The hubris with which these demands were made has shocked many on the left and led them to question whether the European project really is place of progressive politics or a club we want to be in.
This is just the latest round in a long struggle between the Greek people and their creditors – the unaccountable ‘Troika’. The policies, put in place in exchange for billions of euros worth of funds to finance Greece’s crippling debts, have had terrible consequences that will affect generations to come. Greek GDP has fallen by some 25 per cent, unemployment has hit record levels (including over 50 per cent youth unemployment) and studies have proven that suicide rates increase for every 1 per cent decrease in Greek government spending.
Make no mistake about it: this is worse than a Greek tragedy.
However, now is not the time to pull up the drawbridge and withdraw from the European Union. This week’s decisions have been made by elected politicians, not institutions. We should be holding them accountable, not dismantling the building they took the decisions in.
Owen Jones penned a piece in this week’s Guardian in which he describes “building a new Britain, one of workers’ rights, a genuine living wage, public ownership, industrial activism and tax justice”. I support all of these things and believe they are possible; but sadly I disagree that making the case to leave the EU makes all this happening more likely.
The first reason not to leave is the most important in my eyes. Without the safeguard of European legislation, the Tories would have a bonfire of our social and employment rights.
With leaks this week suggesting that David Cameron will seek to withdraw permanently from the Working Time and Temporary Workers Directives, we have a clear idea of his vision for the UK – whether we are in the EU or without. Under this government’s direction, we would no longer have four weeks’ guaranteed paid holiday per year, no regulation requiring employment agencies to provide the same pay and conditions to temporary and permanent workers and no guaranteed equal treatment of men and women in the workplace. The list goes on.
European legislation is far from perfect, and there remains much to be done in terms of securing greater protections for workers. However it is by working together and establishing common principles that we have the greatest chance of improving the lives of our most vulnerable citizens. Labour has campaigned hard to close loopholes in European rules which allow employment agencies to routinely pay agency workers far less than permanent staff doing the same job in order to drive down costs.
It is a sad fact that Europe is suffering from a technocratic and bureaucratic right-wing swamp: more than half of the 28 EU governments are run or led by Conservative and right-leaning Liberal governments. But it is only in being present and speaking up for socialist principles that we can achieve things like the Financial Transaction Tax, regulate casino capitalism and champion social justice. Europe needs some imaginative left thinking and vision to lift it out of its current torpor.
Without the hard work of the Socialist and Democrat Group, of which Labour is a member, the European Parliament’s resolution on the infamous Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership passed last week would contain few or no protections for public services, workers’ rights or the environment. It is down to the very presence of the left in the European Union that the negotiators of a trade deal whose impact will be felt by all will be forced to listen to the people.
As many have pointed out, the money that was intended to ‘save’ the Greek economy actually went to those British, French and German banks that had recklessly lent money to Greece in the first place, raising the country’s private debt to unsustainable levels. The effect of the creditors’ bailout has been to transfer this private debt to Greece’s public institutions and population, in a sequence of events not dissimilar, albeit with much more devastating consequences, to what happened in the UK following the 2008 crash.
Preventing such a situation from happening again requires regulating banks on an international scale: something that can only be achieved through vehicles of international cooperation such as the European Union. Leaving the table would mean we cannot be part of that discussion.
It would put the UK on an unequal footing against our European neighbours, leading us nowhere but down the path to social dumping and the undercutting of wages. Moreover, if we went for UKIP’s touted ‘Norway solution’, we would be subjected to the same rules as we are now (including on the free movement of labour) but have absolutely no say on how these rules are formed.
Owen Jones is right to call the events of the past few weeks ‘ugly’. He is right to call for a leftist campaign, reinvigorated by revulsion over and rejection of the creditors’ implacable demands and bullish tactics. But this must not be a campaign to retreat from Europe and create a socialist paradise in the UK: it’s about organising with our European neighbours and building a collective voice, all the louder because we are greater in number.
Only by working together will we make ourselves heard.
When we are angry with Westminster we do not argue that we should leave: we argue that we should get more people like us into the Commons to change the direction of political decisions. This is how we change the EU too.
Jude Kirton-Darling is Labour MEP for the North East of England. Follow her on Twitter