The Tories’ firm support for TTIP is one example from many of the British Conservatives’ unacknowledged pro-Europeanism. So why are they so rude about the EU all the time?
It’s rare for a subject as dry and technical as a trade deal to hit the news as much as TTIP has done, but the controversial EU-US trade deal is controversial for several good reasons. The left truly should be very concerned about what it entails. For consumer and workers’ rights in particular, new legal immunities and even extra-legal reinforcement for foreign corporate activities will provide them the chance to operate in country X without having to abide by the country’s laws (see Chartist’s TTIP exchange portal). In political terms, TTIP has also raised some interesting questions about the Conservatives and their post-Maastricht attitudes to toward the EU. If anyone was blind to the sharp neo-liberal turn the EU has taken since 2000 they certainly shouldn’t be now after the dreaded Euro-Pact and the intentions behind this EU-US TTIP deal. The EU’s contemporary neo-liberal complexion is hard to deny. So why are the Tories still so rabidly eurosceptic?
TTIP as it stands in mid-2014 makes this plain. The irony is that your modern Tory still rants and raves about ‘Brussels’ as if Jacques Delors was still running the European Commission. Yet they’re still occasianally prepared to extol the ‘economic benefits’ of free trade deals (thrashed out by the EU) and other EU market-making legislation. There is a high degree of good fit between Tory economic Thatcherism and the EU’s own economic agenda. The ideological thrust of the EU’s economic agenda, as seen in modern internal market law, competition law and EMU, and modern economic Conservativism chime a rather similar neo-liberal tune. This unspoken common cause also isn’t particularly new. The EU has, just like the Tories, advocated (and legislated) the privatisation of utilities sectors since the 1990s, only the Tories got there first a decade or so earlier (see the recent Chartist article on EU law and the railways here). More recently, the 2011 Cross Border Healthcare directive, an EU attempt to shove its liberalising four freedoms into national healthcare systems, was wholeheartedly supported by Tories and LibDems in Parliament and angrily rejected by the European trade union movement.
Shooting back further in time to the 1980s, when Britain’s European battle lines divided a Thatcherite sceptics from everyone else, the role of Conservative European Commissioner Lord Cockfield provided a great deal of the ideas and organisational impetus to the liberalising Single Market programme. The ‘Europe the Jacques built’ did not just provide a firm ‘social Europe’ impetus to the European project, but it also had a great deal of British conservative influence – with the blessing and assistance and Delors himself.
Political discourse and reality often don’t match up well. The British Tory has in fact got an awful lot to thank the EU for. The EU has done, and will likely continue, to do much of its dirty work, even if Britain leaves the EU and rejoins through the EEA route.
TTIP is, pardon the pun that’s coming, just the tip of the iceberg. The NHS will be sold off in lots of little privatisable chunks if the Health and Social Care Act isn’t repealed, and if sold to foreign firms from the US (a TTIP signatory), this situation will be near irretrievable. Are Tories engaged in one big head-fake whereby they are simply feigning their euro-phobia? or have they simply been contradicting themselves for years? It’s unlikely they’re clever enough for the former, and – in pointing to the latter – it is more likely that a populist xenophobic streak is responsible for their euro-nonsense. Those sceptical of the an apparent common cause between modern Conservatism and the European project need just to look across to the continent to note the pro-European lean of most of Europe’s centre-right parties. Indeed, in many countries much of national euro-sceptism is found on the political left.
The truth is, there is a great deal for the centre-right and the centre-left to be pro-EU or EU-sceptic – demonstrating the depth of the EU’s often complex but, with doubt, profound influence on national political life. But it does seem strange that the Tories have so much of their agenda satisfied by the European economic integration to rail against the political vehicle that provides it. Either way – either as angry, clumsy self-contradiction or sneaky malevolence – these lessons shouldn’t be lost on everyone else.