The results of the general election in the UK paint a frightening picture for those of us committed to Europe’s humanist and progressive heritage. It is not just Britain’s membership in the European Union which is at stake, but its very commitment to fundamental rights and values. These coinciding threats are equally important issues and have far reaching implications for Britons and Europeans alike. Salient points from the elections include:
- The Conservative government will attempt to repeal the Human Rights Act and thus pull Britain out of the European Convention of Human Rights under the leadership of a Minister who openly favours reintroducing the death penalty, as have several other Ministers in the new government.
- The Home office Minister has reiterated her staunch opposition for any European programme of sharing asylum seekers, and her support for the ‘let them die’ policy of not rescuing migrants at sea in the Mediterranean.
- The campaign was largely fought and won around a substantial economic misconception: that the previous Labour government managed the economy terribly and only the Conservative-led coalition policy of austerity restored some order and therefore these policies should be continued and even expanded. Most economists disagree with this judgment of Labour’s recent economic record and question profoundly the benefits of austerity. These views were sorely missing from public discourse, however, replaced instead by the scare-mongering of politicians and journalists.
- Placing the burden of fiscal adjustment onto the most vulnerable in society through welfare cuts undermines social rights and protections; further privatisation of public services and a lowering of rights at work are also likely to figure in the Conservative plans.
- The Scottish independence movement, added welcome energy and ideas, but also brought with it the emergence of nationalism both in Scotland and England. Historic precedent shows us that left unchecked, nationalist trends create a deeply problematic political landscape for progressives.
Each of these align with broader political trends across Europe, and indeed examples from other European countries very regularly came up in the elections – chiefly the example of Greece with the totally spurious argument that Britain could have been in a similar financial situation if the previous government had not taken harsh austerity measures. What the transnational character of these political trends show is that Britain is not totally isolated from the European mainland, nor is the example set by Britain isolated from influencing politics in the rest of the continent.
In a globalised world political ideas and ideologies spread rapidly across borders, and so the transnational level is an important level to have arguments about ideas. Whatever Britain decides will have impact on and lead to attempts to copy across Europe. Clearly one great danger to avoid is the unraveling of the European Union starting from Britain; another great danger is the (continued) undermining of the best European rights and values whether or not Britain is inside the EU.
In the run up to the referendum, which should take place before 2017 according to David Cameron’s promise, there are two important political battles. The first is over the contents of the renegotiation of Britain’s relationship with the European Union, and the second political battle will be the ‘yes’ or ‘no’ battle of the referendum itself. The question of the referendum, according to what has been said so far, should be between ‘yes’ to a renegotiated relationship, or ‘no’ to membership of the European Union. This clearly makes things difficult for anyone who thinks that Britain’s current relationship with the European Union is a good one, or those who think that Britain should be more integrated into the European Union.
For the moment, the list of things Cameron has said should be renegotiated is vague and includes trying to impose some restrictions on welfare claimants in Britain from other European countries; a UK opt-out to the treaty commitment to ‘ever closer union’; ensuring changes in the single market cannot be imposed on non-eurozone countries by Eurozone countries; giving greater powers to national parliaments to block EU legislation; and extending the period of time until free movement applies to any new member states of the EU.
Some of these demands may require treaty change, which is unlikely to impress other EU countries, and in any case could not be organized before 2017 – although it could be possible to create an agreement with the UK which would have legal force now, and be incorporated into the treaties at the next treaty change. These demands may not be enough for some parts of the Conservative party, which may push Cameron into demanding more, and potentially blowing his chances with European partners for getting any meaningful negotiation at all, which may push the UK towards the exit.
There is a school of thought which holds that the UK referendum may be an opportunity to establish a two-speed Europe, or in any case remove the ‘UK obstacle’ to further political integration. Michel Rocard has argued that it could be better if the UK leaves to allow other countries to move towards a federal model; Andrew Duff has argued for a special kind of relationship for the UK on much the same grounds. Thomas Piketty and others have argued that the Eurozone countries should push forwards towards political union, and this would require separate institutions for the Eurozone and the wider European Union. Perhaps a UK referendum is an opportunity to start such a process.
There is something in each of these proposals, and indeed, in the Bloomberg address in which David Cameron set out the referendum, he specifically mentioned as a reason for it that much change would be necessary in the Eurozone to address the fallout of the financial and economic crisis. But given the strength of the financial services in the UK, and the entanglements with and impact it has on the rest of the European economy – and so the strength of its lobby in the UK on one side, and the wariness of it on the part of the other European countries on the other – it seems to me wishful thinking to hope that out of the UK renegotiations will result a situation where the city of London is largely independent of EU regulation, neither impacted by it nor with a strong say over it: the other Europeans would not allow a strong financial sector on the edges of the EU, and the financial services in London will want to have a maximum say over financial regulations continent-wide. Lord Hill’s position as Commissioner for Financial Services shows how high up the agenda of both sides in the negotiation this is.
If the effect of a renegotiated settlement in other areas was to reduce the UK’s weight in EU decision making in general – even if it was kept in the short term over financial services – making the country less influential in deciding on top posts for the Commission, or in setting the agenda of the European Council, then it may be that a special relationship for the UK would open up the way over time for political integration of others. Still, this seems an unlikely route, relying on constantly threatening the UK with being pushed out totally. More probably in this scenario is more and more countries looking to block integration for one or other short-term reason siding with the UK.
A more honest approach would be to make the case frontally and forcefully in the UK for UK leadership in Europe, in the direction of greater integration. We need to push for a situation where the renegotiated settlement achieved by Cameron seems unsatisfactory not because it is not euro-sceptic enough, but because it does not seem ambitious enough.
The election result results from a great uncertainty over the position of the UK, and England more specifically, in the world. For the moment the reaction resembles a kind of ‘every man for himself’ scramble to some reassurance – but the reassurance is likely to be short term, and the political union in the United Kingdom is already falling apart. The Scottish National Party did so well because they gave a sense of purpose and project, a politics of hope, to those who voted for them. More than this they were willing to pose important questions and give ambitious answers, making politics seem possible and exciting, and not a cynical game. Much of the internal critique in the Labour party at the moment is saying that Labour did not present itself as a ‘party of aspiration’. What is meant by that by Blairites and others is that Labour seemed unfriendly to aspiring middle classes who want to increase their personal wealth and situation through work, and to businesses. Yet there is a different kind of political aspiration which is totally neglected by this individualistic analysis, the political aspiration for a better world, for being involved in a common project which leads to change and progress. The Scottish Nationalist Party is able to frame this in terms of a common effort for Scotland. Progressive parties in the UK as a whole need to find a way of framing their progressive message in more universal terms, not least to appeal to all of those scared of nationalism, and Europe is now front and center of that battle, and human rights a core element.
Thus, instead of taking this as the moment when the European cause is lost in the UK, and admitting that the battle has been lost, it may be wiser to see it as one of the best time for a progressive European case to be made. Both the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats, as well as smaller but rapidly growing parties like the Greens, need to redefine and reposition themselves substantially, and a commitment to positive action on behalf of everyone in Europe, improving living standards, rights and liberties throughout the European Union, could be an important part of that redefinition, something that would be welcomed by other struggling progressive forces across the continent, allowing the positioning of the UK parties as important leaders in an international context. So much of the European heritage of progress and rights is being put at risk by the Conservative party, that a fightback on these grounds is not only morally required but could be very effective.