Should the left uncritically back an institution that both threatens democracy and the interests of working people? Now, the case for a living wage is unanswerable. Most people living in poverty are in working households. More than five million workers are paid less than the bare minimum at which they can live decent, comfortable lives. The taxpayer is subsidising the refusal of businesses to pay their workers properly to the tune of billions of pounds through tax credits. Given that poorer workers tend to spend – rather than save – extra money that ends up in their pockets, a living wage would inject desperately needed demand into the economy.
Labour is rightly championing a living wage, even though it is being too timid about it: for example, it suggests that the Government should only take on contractors paying a decent wage. But No 10 had a surprising objection: “it’s not clear that would be legal” under EU procurement law, a Tory spokesperson argued. Not much of the famed British Bulldog spirit that David Cameron displayed last December when he used his veto. And here comes the important caveat: back then, the interests of British bankers were threatened, rather than the poorest workers in the country. It wasn’t national interest, but class interest that Cameron was defending at the negotiating table.
Ed Milband is right to assail Cameron for “hiding behind EU law” as an excuse for failing to push the living wage, but even if there are holes in Number 10’s legal advice, the EU in its current form is clearly rigged in the interests of big business. For far too long, the left has abandoned any criticisms of the EU to the right, even when it is on a collision course with the interests of working people. Yes, Labour recently helped defeat Cameron over EU budget cuts, but that was more about helping to turn the PM’s face its increasingly familiar shade of violet than any fundamental principle. It is left to the xenophobes of Ukip and leading Tories – such as Michael Gove, who even floated abandoning the EU altogether – to challenge Brussels.
And yet the very foundations of the EU are built upon pushing a doggedly free market, pro-business agenda. Back in the early 1990s, the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union enshrined the “free movement of goods, persons, services and capital”, as well as an economic policy “conducted in accordance with the principle of an open market economy with free competition”. The majority of the British public may want the railways renationalised – it’s even the preferred option of Tory voters – but EU Directive 91/440 means that is practically impossible. The Lisbon Treaty – forced through the EU a few years ago – promotes the privatisation of all public services.
And then there’s the whole issue of democracy. Much power lies in the hands of the Council of Ministers, the members of which – unlike the European Parliament – are accountable only to their respective national governments, rather than the European people as a whole. The eurozone is being ravaged by a catastrophic policy of austerity that has sucked out demand, and driven more than 18 million people into the trauma of unemployment, even as debt rises. The all-powerful and entirely unaccountable European Central Bank – which doesn’t even bother publishing its minutes – is partly to blame as it spent years obsessing over inflation, even as parts of European society disintegrate. When the Irish people voted the wrong way on the Lisbon Treaty, they were told to hold the vote all over again. As the German playwright Bertolt Brecht once put it, it might have been easier “to dissolve the people and elect another”.
So why isn’t the left kicking off more? Partly, it’s fear of being lumped together with the sort of swivel-eyed Little Englander nationalists who often populate newspaper online comment boxes, alternating between ranting about Germany’s Fourth Reich, Commies at the BBC and “feminazis”. But it also has a lot to do with history – and, above all, with defeat. It was, after all, the Tories under Ted Heath who brought Britain into the European Economic Community. Labour was so divided over it that, when it offered the British people a vote on the issue in 1975, its ministers were able to vote on conscience. Former European Commissioner Neil Kinnock may now be an avid Euro-enthusiast, but he used to berate the project like much of the left. Labour’s 1983 manifesto even went as far as arguing for withdrawal.
But as post-war social democracy was shredded by the Thatcherite juggernaut, the left began to cling to Brussels like it was a life raft. It seemed to be the only hope of getting any progressive reforms through at all.
It is desperately time for a reassessment. It doesn’t mean arguing for withdrawal, but it does mean demanding a very different European project. In the past three decades, democracy has been driven into retreat: many policies must effectively be vetted by big business, the City, and the EU. There needs to be nothing short of a democratic revolution that makes the EU accountable to the interests of working people. And if the left does not make that case, nobody else will.