Regarding the EU referendum, one hears much venom on all sides. “What about trade? What about jobs? What about sovereignty? How much does it really cost?” These strident, unanswerable questions are what we can expect to be hearing every day between now and June 23rd.
Most observers would agree that Cameron’s romp around Europe with his begging bowl has in no substantial way affected the terms of the debate. Members of the Conservative Party, however, were allowed to say very little until the Prime Minister returned from his personal crusade, with his list of concessions, waving the starting flag for the referendum debate.
It all seems to have had much more to do with jostling for personal power within the Conservative Party, than with the momentous change we are lead to believe is facing the country. Many observers feel there has been more heat than light shed in the debate, but nonetheless, to many the issues are heartfelt and passions have been inflamed. In all this the voice of the Labour leadership has been remarkably muted. One might wonder where those on the left truly stand.
In general, it might be fair to say, the left tends to support international solutions to international problems. Many of the problems we face today are indeed, and, without doubt, increasingly, international. We may not want to give up our sovereign right to tax both individuals and corporations at whatever rate we choose, but it turns out that very rich individuals and corporations are able to employ clever accountants to ensure that they move their company headquarters, and their profits and salaries, to the tax havens outside the UK that can offer them the lowest rate of tax. Tax is, therefore, an international issue whether we like it or not.
Not only people, but also air, water, and fish, for example, are prone to crossing borders, so migration and environmental issues also require internationally co-ordinated solutions. Same say the EU has been helpful in securing health and safety regulations, as well as human rights legislation, and in achieving improvements to the environment, including to our British beaches. Security is another area in which co-ordination seems likely to reap rewards. Many people are concerned about cyber crime and people trafficking for example. These might well best be tackled by having close international relations in order to be able to share information more easily. In none of these areas is EU membership essential, but on the other hand, it is perhaps, on balance, helpful.
However, in the fallout from the financial crisis in 2007/8 the principle of mutual gain from mutual support, that of the stronger countries helping the weaker countries to weather the storm, was reneged upon. When trade shrank drastically and sources of credit were no longer as abundant as they had been, Germany insisted on debt repayment under draconian terms; stringent stipulations which brought down the democratically elected government of Greece. In another abject failure of European unity, the weakest, most vulnerable economies have had to shoulder the largest share of the burden of the sudden influx of migrants from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and other war torn countries. This migrant pressure has led to the closing down of the open-border agreement in Europe. The reluctance of the more prosperous countries to prioritise collective benefit above narrow self-interest has undermined practically every tenet of European Unity. In sum, the concept of Union in Europe seems under severe threat, regardless of the outcome of the British referendum.
If the EU fails in its existing form, and it looks as if it is failing mightily at the moment, then why not let Cameron and the Conservative Party fight it out amongst themselves? Without doing anything to hasten it along, this could prove to be an opportunity for the left to support working people, by, for example, taking the opportunity in the subsequent renegotiations to have a closer look at the secretive proposals for the TTIP trade agreement. There cannot be a single nation in Europe today that believes in ‘business as usual’ for the foreseeable future. For Labour, in this case, discretion may well turn out to be the better part of valour.