The European Union is much more than a trading bloc says Julie Ward
“We’re leaving!” shout the Brexiteers whenever there’s a slight whiff of Remain in the air. But when, and if, we do leave what exactly are we leaving, apart from taking leave of our senses? That, at least, becomes more and more apparent as the impasse regarding the Irish Border continues to defeat the amateurish UK negotiators at every step on this tortuous path into the unknown. Meanwhile, Barnier, the calm, assured, consummately professional, tough and fair negotiator, waits with extraordinary patience, reminding Theresa May that the clock is ticking and that a backstop means a backstop even if ‘Brexit Means Brexit’ means many different things to the Conservatives.
Our membership of the EU brings us many benefits, tangible and intangible. Since voting (narrowly) in 2016 to cut our historic ties with the world’s most successful peace project, the British public have largely, to their growing dismay, discovered the smorgasbord of EU initiatives present in their daily lives. This menu of ever-increasing common goods should have been taught in school as part of a half-decent citizenship curriculum and then be subsequently revisited through innovative lifelong learning programmes, including learning at work.
From workers’ rights to anti-discrimination legislation, from the red tape of health and safety legislation that limits accidents at work and stops us dying from faulty goods, toxic food or unregulated medicines, to the support of our creative and cultural industries and joint scientific research, the EU with its Single Market of 500 million people is an economic powerhouse like no other. It is already abundantly clear that we are going to be poorer outside the bloc.
However, the EU is so much more than simply a trading bloc. Government failure to value and articulate the rich social relationships that have grown up between people and civil society organisations through programmes like Erasmus+, Europe for Citizens and Creative Europe is unforgivable. In every way we will be diminished outside of the union. Membership brings us together in many fora, not only in the European Parliament and at Council meetings, but also through joint parliamentary assemblies and the Committee of the Regions which brings local representatives from municipalities together several times a year to share ideas and collaborate on joint initiatives. And then there is the collective influence that 28 member states can bring to bear on the world stage: for example, supporting fragile states with capacity building thereby making the world safer for everyone, providing humanitarian and development aid, such as picking up the tab for crucial women’s health programmes dropped as a result of Trump’s Global Gag.
We continuously call for a humane response to the refugee and migrant crisis and call out those governments who refuse to share the burden. In countries such as Spain, Portugal and Sweden, progressive governments have welcomed refugees, and continue to counter the overt racism of the right and the polite xenophobia of the centre. We know that together we are stronger and can do so much more to reinvigorate the Left, building on the ‘Social Pillar’ that was adopted by the European Council in Gothenburg last year, that must now tilt the axis of the EU towards a union of people first and foremost.
With a strong Labour party in the UK now is not the time for us to turn our backs on our neighbours. At this moment in history we need to be standing shoulder to shoulder with our sister parties in the EU. Therefore, Brexit of any kind is an abandonment of solidarity with our comrades. We need to lead in Europe not merely watch from the sidelines, wringing our hands as the extreme right destroy the European project. It is our project too and the young people who joined us en masse know that their future is European. We must not let them down.
Julie Ward is an MEP for North West England.