Remain & reform

Alex Sobel says we’re better in and working for change together

Fighting to remain a part of the European Union is only the first step of what should be the project of all of our lifetimes – permanent reform of the body and institutions that make it up.

It is not enough simply to argue that – on balance – it is better to stay a member of the European Union and leave it at that. As if those who wish to leave have no valid reasons at all for doing so. Being a member of the EU is better for us a country and we should have no problem with saying so however often we’re shouted down as traitors. But we cannot submit to the simplistic thinking of such opponents. Ours must be a message of remain and reform.

In his excellent pamphlet for Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, Forward with Europe: A democratic and progressive reform agenda after the Lisbon Strategy [pdf], Stefan Collignon sets out an approach to reform that all on the left should get behind.

Firstly, we must not be afraid to take on the mammoth task of reforming the EUs institutions. This is fundamental both to the case of why we should remain as part of them, but also to make sure they function in such a way as to allow the maximum of democratic choice within EU nations.

The Right and Centre Right groupings have been somewhat successful in making a neoliberal agenda common across the EU, while the left have successfully defended and increased environmental and social wins through joint action on pollution and climate change and areas like the social chapter. We should now formulate a new strategy that explicitly ties the original Lisbon agenda with broad redistributive objectives.

For too long, the EU has focused on economic reforms that focus exclusively on producer and capital and not enough on workers. There have been some wins – like the Working Time Directive and Freedom of Movement – but these are overshadowed by the sense that these are a ceiling not a floor. Any role the left could play in building a reformed EU would be about further balancing these interests.

As a joint enterprise the Socialist group should be pushing to bring workers councils, co-determination and board-level representation to workers to the fore as a standard across Europe. Actively sought as part of international trade deals and as minimum requirements for EU-based businesses above a certain level such a move would both change fundamentally the balance of power between labour and capital as well as increasing productivity and enabling investment in the kind of future economy needed to ensure our ongoing prosperity in Europe.

The EU should also be willing to be more economically interventionist on behalf of workers – within a democratic structure. There are three key planks to making this work.

Firstly, a Growth Fund to enable a Europe Wide Green New Deal plan to completely reset our struggling economies and enable the urgent change needed to tackle climate change. This would act as a ‘Marshall plan’ for the environment. But instead of investing after the destruction – as was the case after WW2 – this would be investment to avoid it.

Secondly, a Cohesion Fund to rebalance those areas of the economy which have suffered chronic underinvestment throughout Europe. By increasing productivity and capital intensity at a regional level, this will be the vital price to pay to ensure that those areas that voted Leave benefitted properly from any decision to remain. They have to feel listened to and understood. Immediate cash injections into their localities as well as long term structural change will be essential to answering the call they made for change in 2016.

Finally, a Globalisation Fund to help those who are under the most pressure in responding to shifting global trends. This will be particularly necessary to help countries on the Mediterranean as they struggle to deal with the ongoing crisis in the Middle East and increased levels of climate-driven refugees.

It is right for the left to fight to stay in the EU. Brexit is a damaging project of the hard right which is designed to benefit a few at the expense of the many. But wanting to remain in the EU does not mean we should not also dedicate ourselves to reforming it too.

Alex Sobel

Alex Sobel is Labour and Co-operative MP for Leeds North West.