The left needs to understand the modern EU better. Fast.

A left Euro-scepticism may not be the answer, but neither is the status quo Europhila that is 20 years behind the times

It is understandable that those with pro-European instincts, for 20 years or so, have been pushed into a defensive posture. Back in the 1980s and 90s a bonafide, albeit fledgling, social dimension was being forged by President Delors. Since the great man’s retirement in 1995 this ‘social Europe’ ideal has withered as ‘liberal Europe’ has accelerated out of sight. The European Commission and the European Court of Justice, once committed to a doctrinal balance between social and economic integration, have taken a decisive neo-liberal turn. The Eurozone’s fiscal compact is the only proof you need of that. People who observe these things every day however have known this for years. Those that dip into these subjects every now an again, and reside mostly in Labour party and Guardian-reading circles, are not doing themselves any favours talking about the European Union as if it is Jacques Delors incarnate. It’s a very different beast now, and the Labour and Guardian reading soft-of-left need to catch up.
The latest such example of this problem comes from the Guardian newspaper. On October 21st an editorial made the perfectly agreeable point that transnational solutions are necessary to challenge the scourge of corporate tax dodging. Despite this article being otherwise quite good, it concludes in very disappointing  fashion: “In an indirect way, it is proof that the EU, for all its flaws, really does carry social and moral dimensions”.
No informed observer of the left, or even centre-left, can make a claim like this or anything like it. It holds no intellectual water at all. The left case for European integration, in light of the EU’s sharp neo-liberal turn after the Delors presidency, comes from what the EU can become, NOT what is has become. Secondly, this is not an intellectually honest statement given the meagre number of cases studies (2!) concerning EU competition law as applied to tax rules. To extrapolate from these individual cases that EU institutions “really [do] carry social and moral dimensions” is a leap of logic that is felled in flight when set against an avalanche of more compelling examples.
Some detailed examples, that speak to the broader body of EU internal market law, are presented below. but firstly some broad brush examples are offered: This same body of EU state aid law, lauded here in this Guardian editorial, is also responsible for a liberalisation agenda encompassing utilities sectors like post and transport. It is the reason why ambitions to renationalise the railways are virtually zero. The franchise and tender system that ‘organises’ Britain’s semi-privatised railways may have been created by our own Tory governments of the past, but it is EU law that has entrenched them, making them near-impossible to reverse. This same EU state aid law, and prior notification rules in particular, also imposes demands for swathes of  public sector spending to be reported to the European Commission; a demand that is not merely an administrative burden, but is often in fact restrictive. This same EU state aid law that demands Scotland’s life-line island ferry network, the vast majority of which requires heavy government subsidy, must use a tendering system to be compliant with EU law. Do the Guardian cardiganistas like all this? I would doubt it.


The left case for European integration, in light of the EU’s sharp neo-liberal turn after the Delors presidency, comes from what the EU can become, NOT what is has become

European Competition law and EU internal market law form the powerful double-engine of the Eutopian economic integration and is the rump mass of what we often label ‘EU law’. No area of European law furnishes EU institutions with more power. What was once a balanced means of promoting economic harmony on the continent has turned into something far more ino idiots. The neo-liberal turn we’ve witnessed in the last two decades is found in both the Court of Justice’s endeavours as well as the Commission’s. It is unfortunate that more attention, outside of academic work at least, is paid to the Commission rather than the Court. The neglect of this very political court is evidence enough that this broader EU subject is getting short shrift.  Below are two examples of its importance. One is already fairly well-known, particularly among trade unionists. The other is a scary development in this same area of company law and mobile capital that features in the Guardian editorial.

Labour rights: The Court once the unions’ friend, now turned foe

Once upon a time the Court of Justice took a balanced view when policing conflicts between European law directed at market-making and collective wage bargaining institutions. As late as 1998, in the Albany case, the Court said that the latter was a fundamental part of the ‘European Social Model’ and thus could not be undermined by EU (competition) law. Similar interpretive logics were also to be found in the Courts case law governing the single market and in particular posted workers before 1998 (e.g. the Rush Portuguesa case). After 2000, the court mysteriously changed course. The Court starts viewing the rights of private economic actors more favourably, culminating in the Laval and Viking judgements. In Laval – the court declared the regime of wage-setting in Sweden, so fundamental to the country’s own social model, in breach of EU internal market law. The autonomous setting of wages by unions and employers was no longer allowed to be imposed upon foreign firms who entered another member states with their own lower paid labour. Worse still, union attempts to buttress this wage-setting regime through strikes and blockades was also deemed illegal under EU law. Collective bargaining and the right to strike were dealt a serious blow (1).
Enter the Viking case. Here, a Finnish ferry company re-flagged one of their vessels in Estonia in order to pay its crew lower wages for plying the same trans-Baltic route. When the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF) went on strike in response, and organised secondary actions, the Court of Justice deemed this illegal as it obstructed the economic free movement rights of  mobile firms. Note that now ‘free movement’, far from being concerned with a Romanian coming to work in a western European country to improve their lot, is now directed toward companies enabling them to shop around for a jurisdiction for weaker labour laws and wage nor S. EU law now says this is not only OK, but indeed a ‘fundamental part of the single market’. This is all thanks to what is called the ‘country of origin principle’.

The European Court and mobile capital: keeping bad company

These two cases above concerning wage bargaining and labour rights were followed by other cases. The country-of-origin principle, laced with the sort of judicial neo-liberalism that is rarely talked about in the Guardian, has also been brought to bear by the Court in its company law case law. British observers will like part of this. Here too, the Court once took a much more balanced view of free movement rights and the effect of these would have if taken to far to their extreme. In short, the Court didn’t see much logic in undermining the regulatory systems of member states if it encouraged regulatory competition. Such a view was taken by the Court in 1988 in the Daily Mail case. The Daily Mail now has its corporate registration based in Bermuda, but back in the late 80s it tried to move its registration from the UK to the Netherlands. The British authorities objected and the European Court took its side, stating that the Daily Mail was not moving its actual operations out of the UK and was simply using this re-basing ploy to avoid (higher) UK regulations. Good on the Court – the ‘race to the bottom’ in company law standards this would have encouraged was not deemed worth it.
Now to something closer the modern day. In the 2002 Centros case the court reversed this earlier Daily Mail approach in a fashion much in line with that above in the Laval and Viking cases. A Danish wine merchant, who had its entire business in Denmark, re-based its corporate registration in the UK to pay UK corporation tax and adhere to (lower) UK regulations. When the Danish government objected and the case reached the European Court the decision handed down said the Danes were within their rights to go ‘jurisdiction shopping’. Put another way, the thrust of this decision, in line again with the country-of-origin principle, said that firms were allowed to set up fake ‘letter box’ companies in other member states in order to dodge regulations in their country of operation. In essence this said that the ‘race to the bottom’ in labour regulations and tax rates was to be underpinned in EU law. This 2002 case was then underlined by others (Überseering and Inspire Art cases in particular).

Creative destruction

What is different from these examples to the one used in the Guardian is that the logics used in these cases, and the country-of-origin principle in particular, are laced through mout of EU internal market law – the substantive meat abe beating heart of all EU law. This sits in contrast to these logics used in deciding these tax cases the Guardian raises. Moreover, when this is sat next to the Services Directive, the Europact and the Commission intentions with TTIP, this picture of a neo-liberal European project painfully clear. It also sits in stark and painful contrast to the picture painted by the Guardian editorial. it should also be made clear that the ‘country of origin principle’ also forms the main rationale for TTIP’s most infamous provision: Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS).

I can already feel many of you recoil, as if the lessons of the above are a pretext for a new left sceptic case for ‘out’. Not at all – but we must accept that the neo-liberal pillars the EU has erected must be brought down. This will be messy, but the seeds of some necessary creative destruction have already been sown

The response? I can already feel many of you recoil, as if the lessons of the above are a pretext for a new left sceptic case for ‘out’. Not at all – but we must accept that the neo-liberal pillars the EU has erected  for itself must be brought down. This will be messy, but the seeds of some necessary creative destruction have already been sown. The dreaded ‘fiscal compact’ is forging a generation of virulent and potentially violent anti-EU sentiment, particularly from the European left. Anyone who proclaims to be anti-austerity, anti-neo-liberal or even (dare I say it) a democrat can find no cause to support it. The best thing David Cameron has done is keep the UK out of the dreaded pact. I say that very sincerely. The austerity regimen it imposes isn’t just curiously Osbornesque, but very very permanent. Some seriously destructive, yet democratic and collective, act will be required to destroy it – as will the EU’s doctrinaire neo-liberalism that has been given life by the country of origin principle.

Defensive posture

Pro-Europeans in the UK have been locked into defensive posture for so long that they feel they must defend, at all costs, ‘the project’ against reactionary nonsense. There is an informed and intellectually honest alternative that can reconcile a necessary critique of the modern EU with a riposte to reactionary Eurosceptics. But talking about the EU as if its a roast chicken when its increasingly turning into a nut loaf nightmare we didn’t order is no way to have this debate. It is dishonest, out-dated and will fail. Labour’s new leadership bowed to the pressure of its pro-EU camp, built of Blairites and the soft left that elected him, in committing Labour to an ‘in-no-matter-what’ position. This cannot be the last thing voters hear from Labour on the subject. It is not just that they deserve more honesty, but they deserve to hear about a European reality that they’re simply not being told.

Andy Morton is an academic researcher focusing on a number of areas of EU law and is CHARTIST‘s web editor.  He is keen to start a broader debate about this subject, using CHARTIST as a forum. 


(1) It’s important to note that these decisions undermined collective bargaining means of setting minimum wage rates, not legal minimum wage rates. Seeing as the latter are much lower than those wage rates set by collective bargaining, this still sees EU law being used to push wage rates of workers lower.



  1. So we should not abandon the EU: but you have not said what measures can be taken against the neoliberal shift of the EU. Please produce the second part.

  2. Thanks for the comment.

    My contribution, already fairly long, was to concentrate on the problems of the EU and understanding them. How we respond, in terms of ‘measures’ if you prefer, should be the subject of debate amongst those who care to engage.

    If asked to describe ‘measures’ that I would see as suitable reform, I’d outline the following: for starters the role of a supranational court must be radically altered and the Commission needs to become democratically accountable. Directly. The nature of EU law has developed in a very undemocratic and top down fashion. EU law has also developed an irreversible quality which entrenches a pan-generational democratic deficit. Meaning that citizens 10 years after EU law is created, have remarkably little means of changing it. Altering this fundamental character of EU law can’t be done tinkering around with the Treaty. It needs something more radical. The fiscal compact and TTIP are inspiring the sorts of response which will threaten the EU’s existence. without a pro-EU left flank, the EU will not survive. This does itself provide an opportunity.

  3. This isn’t a bad attempt at articulating the traditional pro-EU line from Owen Tudor, but it still falls short at times. Tudor outlines nicely the austerity agenda of the Commission and the Central Bank and the attacks on collective bargaining implemented by the EU, but then says “None of these are because of the EU – indeed the UK government imposed austerity purely out of choice.” – Tudor did however already state that these key EU institutions were responsible for SOME of these things. A long time Chartist supporter however and voices the views held by many at our magazine.

  4. Agree with most of Andy’s comments, if anything I don’t think he went far enough. I recently outlined my position in Chartist ”What is the EU for”. The left must wake up to the fact that the EU, in its present form and in its present trajectory, has little in common what we have voted for and supported in the past. We voted for a non-aligned, social-democratic dispensation which owed much to the early founders, Monnet, Gasperi, Adenaeur and de Gaulle. What we now have is a the European part of an aggressive Euro-Atlantic alliance. A neo-liberal economic policy complemented by a neo-conservative foreign policy, both courtesy of our translantic partners on the other side of the pond. I say partners, but we are now in fact vassals of said US interests and geopolitical strategy. The European project has now transmuted into a North Atlantic project under US command. This turn in the 1980s was brought about by using EU membership as a stalking horse for NATO membership, a policy made explicit in the Lisbon Agreement, and using Euro widening to offset euro deepening, which consisted of admission of a number of Russophobic, immature democracies who were only too willing to change their status from Soviet satellites, to US satellites.

    Now we are about to become the lucky recipients of another American wheeze, TTIP, a charter for destroying democracy (or rather finishing the job of destroying democracy) whereby US multinationals can, through TTIP legislation, overrule economic policies determined by sovereign governments.

    Is this the vehicle of progress, reason and justice? Rhetorical question really.

    Frank Lee

  5. Grateful for the comment from Frank. I agree with essentially everything he’s said. Our problem is that most of the soft pro-EU left is still locked into a discourse about the EU that doesn’t mirror the European reality we’ve got. The response for me is ‘fight to change it’, rather than leave where we can do nothing to change it. I appreciate this isn’t going ‘far enough’ for some. I mean it – I genuinely sympathise with that.

    If the 2011 Treaty on Stability Competitiveness and Growth (TSCG) is not destroyed, if TTIP comes to pass in the way we fear (The French veto is encouraging), if the dangerous European Court does not have it wings clipped and if the Commission is not made directly elected then I can understand many on the left saying ‘no more please’.

    If we manage these things however, the EUropean project could become something more democratic and SOCIAL democratic. I for one am often bemused by the pro-EU arguments of the left that pretend we have this already. It’s plain wrong. I used to think this way and found myself corrected by evidence.

Leave a comment...

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.