As the momentum grows for a referendum on the EU as a prelude for Britain leaving, it’s almost as though the argument was entirely one within the Tory party and that other parties were uninterested or irrelevant. If the Labour party believes in the EU, warts and all, as a majority do, then at some point – and that is either now or very soon – Labour has got to make the case vigorously and persistently for staying in.
At present Labour is lying low on all the major issues – how to counteract prolonged austerity, how to reform the banks, how to re-industrialise the economy after the ravages of Thatcherit neoliberal capitalism, how to bring down unemployment at least below 1 million, what role the trade unions should play and how proper employment rights can be restored, how to end obscene inequality, how to restore the public service ethos in all our major institutions – and what our role should be in Europe if that is what we really believe in.
The Tory eurosceptic argument for distancing from the EU or abandoning goes like this. It would enable the UK to escape regulations it didn’t like (e.g. working time and agency worker directives), avoid the cost of the CAP and transfer funds (some £8bn a year) and yet still retain access to the single market or at least a free-trade EEA club as already enjoyed by Iceland and Norway. The only problem for them is none of this is true.
If Britain were to adopt the Norwegian model, it would remain bound by virtually all EU regulations, including the working time directive. Worse, it would have little say over regulations that still constrained its industry, being consulted by the European Commisssion but having no vote. It would depend on other countries to make its case, as Norway currently relies on the UK over North Sea oil issues, but who would the UK be able to rely on? Moreover Norway still has to pay into EU coffers for the privilege of being outside the EU: is this a prospect the UK would relish?
Another option would be for Britain to join EFTA and take on the Swiss model. That would involve doing business with EU countries via bilateral deals and by regularly accommodating its regulations to those made in Brussels. Again however Switzerland is inhibited by having no agreement with the EU on financial services and no representation to fight its corner in Brussels. Switzerland at present relies on Britain for that, but who would Britain rely on? It would find itself a fractious outsider with rather limited access to the single market, and almost no influence and few friends. Who wants that? It’s about time Labour began to say these things loud and clear.