OK, so let’s start with the basic economics. Britain is part of Europe. Next time you are driving on a motorway, play a game: read the number plates of the lorries that you pass and count the different nationalities. You’ll need to learn the alphabet code but it’s a quick way to see how inextricably interconnected the UK economy is to the rest of Europe. Anti-Europeans try to deny or downplay this. However, your eyes do not lie. The latest available figures for 2010 show that total UK exports amounted to £262,213 million of which £140,823 million went to countries within the EU, namely 53.7%. Within this figure almost 90% went to countries within the Eurozone. ( see, https://www.uktradeinfo.com/index.cfm?task=Export&format=PDF&referer=topPartners
Of course, we should try to boost our trade with China, Brazil, India or wherever but the realities of geography mean that the UK’s main trading partners are and will remain our European neighbours.
Furthermore, economic developments in the last half-century have escaped beyond the boundaries of the individual European nation-state. This has been the era, firstly of the developing multi-national corporation and then with financial de-regulation and the opening up of the former socialist bloc an era of unprecedented globalisation. These developments have undermined the basic post-war ‘welfare-state’ settlement across Europe, a process accelerated over the last three decades by the ideological ascendancy of neo-liberalism. At the same time, the dangers of environmental degradation and climate change have signalled the need for global action to change the character of production and reduce carbon emissions. Taken together, they mean that in the 21st century, politics can no longer be confined to the nation state. To control and regulate both markets and the environment one has to combine action at the European scale with that undertaken by individual national governments. That’s the core argument for the European Union and Britain’s engagement with it.
Then let’s consider the geo-politics. The reality is that since the middle of the 20th century no European country has been a world power. Germany lost the war; Britain and France then lost their empires. European countries developed the European Union while sheltering under the American umbrella during the Cold War. Now the Soviet Union is gone; American neo-conservative dreams of a uni-polar world are shattered; and with globalisation an evolving pattern of big regional groupings is emerging. Within the shifting balance of power in this multi-polar world, one thing is absolutely clear for all of Europe’s major countries. If they want to have any influence in shaping world politics, then they cannot do it on their own. This is as true for Britain as it is for Germany or France, Spain or Poland.
Yet most UK parties refuse to confront these realities. They continue to exaggerate Britain’s weight and significance in the world. The UK remains the centre of their political universe. As David Schoibl says it is not just Conservative but many Labour politicians who present the European issue as one of ‘fighting for British interests against the EU’ rather than arguing for a European dimension as a mainstream element of their main policy propositions.
However, as Neal Lawson has argued here, there will only be popular appeal for these basic arguments when it is clear that Europe is offering a positive way forward for its citizens on the main issues of the day. Ever since EU Commission President Jacques Delors, there has been a collective failure of the progressive forces in Europe to do this. They have left he field open to the Right. Over the last few years it has been arguing for and imposing its reactionary austerity policy bringing unemployment and hardship to citizens across the whole of the EU. No wonder Europe has seemed an increasingly unattractive option to ordinary voters, especially when so much of the mainstream Left colluded with the policy. Now is the moment to break from this policy and reassert a different vision for Europe. The starting point for this has to be the presentation of a different road out of the financial and economic crisis.
The hostile public reaction across Europe to austerity gives space and opportunity to progressives to articulate a clear alternative. Not grandiose rhetoric about greater European unity and constitutional change but rather practical measures to provide jobs and security across the Continent. For a start, the ECB can issue long-term loans of €250 billion at nominal interest to its own European Investment Bank for immediate use by local, regional and national governments on public works programmes for energy efficiency and renewables. This would insulate flats and factories across Europe with repayment coming from the energy savings. It would give jobs to the youth of Madrid, Marseilles and Manchester. It would stimulate growth and spur investment in new green technologies. This is the Plan B Europe so desperately needs. Both Francois Hollande and Jean Luc Melenchon have laid out this type of policy prescrptions in the French Presidential election. The disastrous economic situation is forcing Mario Draghi, Mario Monti and the Spanish government as well as the European Commission to talk about a growth policy and a new ‘Marshall’ Plan. A Hollande victory would give crucial political momentum to this policy shift. But it needs constructive support from the UK. Will Labour, Liberal Democrats and the Nationalists have the guts to follow?