Britain and Europe

I write as someone who is on the British left – someone who sees the destructive capacity of capitalism before I see its dynamism. Someone who sees the separation of power from politics and politics from power being the over-riding feature of the last 30 years. Someone who believes in the fabulous potential of people – to make their life and their world.  So what to think in that context about Britain and Europe?

I am 49. I know, of course, about two very different left attitudes to Europe. I know about the view found on the left and to some extent the right of Labour, that the EU is a ‘rich mans club’, a vehicle for the bankers and corporations that will over-rule and frustrate the radical intent of any Labour government. And I know about those on the right and some on the left in Labour’s ranks that are pro European – for geo-political, cultural and economic reasons. I mostly recall the moment in the late 1980s when a combination of Thatcherism and Delorism combined to create a tailwind of support for a social Europe – especially amongst the unions. But it was always opportunistic – never deep and never abiding. There has never been a profound current or movement for Europe in the UK on the left.

The most recent fault line, over the single currency was never thought through in any systematic way. Pro-Europeans, like me, went along with a single currency without putting in place the democratic means that were necessary to back it. We were intellectually lazy and politically misguided. We crossed our fingers and hoped. Those hostile to the single currency have been proved right but never bothered to come up with an alternative either and sounded merely anti-European.

Now the European project is in crisis.  As I write on a wet Wednesday afternoon in London hope lies in the hands of François Hollande but it is hope without too much belief. Hollande may win the second round and the presidency and it may be the start of an electoral comeback for the left if it can repeated in Germany in 2013 and the UK in 2015. But the social democratic project, which underpinned much of its related European sister project, has neither the countervailing forces nor the programme to reconnect politics to power or power to politics.

Back in the UK, Labour becomes ever more Euro-sceptic as time ticks by to the next election. The public don’t like Europe , so the Labour Party doesn’t like Europe. UKIP and the Tory right set the terms of debate. Witness many things, not least their attitude to a Financial Transaction Tax. After the crash of 2008 apparently nothing needs to change. The financial flows and wild risk taking, which will once again require states to step in and mop up the mess, don’t need to be quelled – what matters is no loss of competitive advantage for London. Labour once again is thinking only about winning and forgetting why.

We don’t know what Europe is for. Is it s a single market? Is it a single society? Is it somewhere between the two? What is the cultural home and space of Europe for? We never take the time to stop and think it through.

Some will rush to a federal Europe – as David Marquand has suggested we do. He may well be right, he usually is. Others want to withdraw and suggest a progressive protectionism. Both have the benefit of at least being plans. But neither quite feel credible. Some suggest a third way of economic growth in the EU. Others still call for a vote in the UK on ‘in or out’ to settle our place once and for all. I have some sympathy for all these positions. I think national governments can and must do more to protect their citizens from global capital. But we cannot just raise the drawbridge. Europe must be the site in which democracy trumps the market. And to get there we must let the people in on the decision making. But how?

How do we establish Europe in the popular imagination of the British people and their fellow Europeans? The founding vision of modern Europe has been shattered. It has been mugged by reality. That journey cannot simply just be kick-started again with a few tweaks. I don’t know the details but it must be a Europe that inspires, that offers security and has some notion of a common good. It must be social, but it must too be democratic and build the environment into the heart of its thinking. It must be, as this site has suggested, about a fundamentally different vision of a good society. But we don’t really know what and we certainly don’t know how. Little wonder there is a crisis.

There is, of course, a rush for answers. Politicians want to be able to tell the people they know what to do. It is a prerequisite for their job. They will not be stopped. Everyone else who cares about Britain and Europe should use the crisis to fully and comprehensively take stock, accept what they got wrong and think afresh about he future. It will take all our imagination and concentration to do it. But Europe must be remade.

This column is part of the ‘Britain in Europe’ debate jointly organised by the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung London and Social Europe Journal.