Thursday, 29 October 2015

Why Brexit might be good for Europe – and for social equality

James Wickham: As the Brexit referendum draws closer, progressive Europeans might start asking: do we really want them anyway?  Arguably a Brexit would strengthen that amorphous thing, the ‘European project’, not least because it could begin to restore Europe’s progressive dimension.

The only partly European part of the island
Britain’s relation to the European project has always been ambiguous.  The imperial legacy means unparalleled international connections at all levels of society – but to the Angloworld, not to Europe.

Consider for example, British emigration, that great untold story of migration studies.  If a diaspora is defined as people living outside the country in which they were born, then in 2002 only China and India had a larger diaspora than Britain (Sriskandarajah and Drew 2006).  Throughout the 20th century this British emigration went largely to the USA and the old ‘white’ Commonwealth.  There has also been considerable population movement the other way, although in recent decades dwarfed by immigration from India and Pakistan.  Notice finally, that while emigration has been a British experience, immigration flows have been disproportionately to England.

Revealingly there is no British equivalent of the Italian term extracommunitari (people from outside the [European] community).  Indeed the planned referendum on EU membership will use the normal franchise for UK parliamentary elections:  British, Irish and Commonwealth citizens resident in the UK will be allowed to vote, EU citizens resident in the UK will not.  Thus a Pakistani citizen resident in the UK can vote on British EU membership, a French citizen resident in the UK cannot.

Across Europe virtually all Europeans define their identity primarily in national terms.  People remain first and foremost French, Polish or whatever.   According to Eurobarometer data, within each nation however a few people define themselves as exclusively European, and a few more define themselves as primarily European ‘and also of… nationality’.  The significant groups are firstly, those who define themselves in exclusively national terms, and secondly, those who define themselves as primarily national but also ‘European’.

The UK has always been remarkable for the large size of the first group and the small size of the second group.  Thus today nearly two thirds of the UK population defines itself in purely national terms – a proportion that is not just higher than in the founding member states of France and Germany, but higher than in such very different states such as Greece, Ireland and Poland (see Chart).

It is therefore hardly surprising that the European Union’s ‘ever closer union of [European] peoples’ has little popular resonance.

Source: Eurobarometer database

Not just history
In many ways the British social structure is now less European than before.  In all of Europe the degradation (and denigration) of its traditional working class has gone furthest, its management is the most Americanised.  Income distribution has become more unequal and so, despite considerable amelioration under the New Labour governments (1996 – 2010), the UK has some of the most extreme poverty of Western Europe.

The changes since the Thatcher revolution have made Britain a more market-based society.  Thus the UK is close to the USA in the extent and form of what I term ‘lite wealth’ – ordinary private property (the house, the car, life insurance, private pension).  While other European countries, especially the Southern ones, also have extensive private property, the UK is unique in the extent to which this property has been made fungible by the retail financial services industry.  This financialisation of ordinary property makes British property very different to the illiquid family property of so many Italian or Greek households.

In the past Italy with its North/South divide was the European country with the greatest regional differences.  Now a similar gap has opened between London and the South on the one hand and the Northern cities on the other hand.   At stake here is the end of any serious government attempt to achieve balanced growth across the national territory.  In the USA regional policy essentially amounts to slash and burn, and Britain now seems very similar.  Conversely, London is Europe’s only real global city: the only city in Europe where financial services are on the same scale as those of New York.  London’s global links are partly built on links derived  from the imperial heritage, but they accelerate them into the future.

Re-institutionalising the market
British government policy towards the EU calls for completion of the  single market.  At the same time successive UK governments have completely ignored that if a single market is to have any legitimacy it will require more European institutions and a European regional policy, a European social policy and European employment regulation.  The UK has often opposed labour market regulations and/or obtained opt-outs (such as the partial opt-out from the Working Time Directive).  

Indeed it appears that one UK demand will be the repatriation of much labour regulation, thus ensuring that UK workers have even fewer employment rights than they do at the moment.  There is a real danger that the UK’s demands for ‘reform’ (aka regression) will lead to a weakening of employment regulation across Europe.

European progressives should stop regarding a Brexit as a disaster.  British policy has promoted a widening but not a deepening of Europe.  This is hardly surprising, because what British governments – and indeed most UK citizens – have wanted is at most a Common Market.  A British exit could therefore remove one brake on social Europe.

Prof. James Wickham is Lead Researcher on TASC's Working Conditions in Ireland Project 

Sriskandarajah, Dhananjayan and Catherine Drew (2006).  Brits Abroad. London: IPPR.


Jim O'Donnell said...

Spot on, James!
After 25+ years here observing the EU's evolution and the UK's role, I would say that the progressive cause would have been better off without them for the past 15-20 years.
It is particularly depressing to note that a Labour government was even more responsible than the Tories for bringing that about.

The defeat and departure of Delors in the mid 90's, coinciding with the arrival of Blair, Brown and New Labour, marked the beginning of the end of the Social Europe project, - the main reason many progressives came on board in the 1980's.
You would be hard pressed to find a chapter of an EU document in the early 90's which did not list "economic and social cohesion" as an objective. Some of it was lip service of course but nevertheless much of it was also real (even more so, with hindsight!) and it's virtual removal from the lexicon reflects a reality. You could probably Google official EU output for any year this century and find no mention of the phrase.

Apart from UK/New Labour's pro "business", pro market influence in the Council and the Commission its impact in the European Parliament was particularly effective and damaging.
During the Thatcher years there was quite a broad progressive majority, reaching into the Christian Democrats, on many social issues and the Socialist Group and the socialist parties in governments could almost always be relied on to oppose her.
The big new wave of on-message Blairite MEPs elected in 1994 firstly tilted the balance in the Socialist group rightwards on economic and social issues (pro business and market), then they hindered any progressive positions within the Socialists as far as they could, and finally, if they failed, they crossed the floor to vote with the Right. (Corbynites pondering the problem of the Blairite rump and thinking of reselection votes might examine how this was achieved: off-message sitting MEPs were simply excluded from the shortlist, usually but not always after an interview by Mandy and friends).

New Labour has probably been the single most influential block in EU policy making on the key issues during that time and are arguably most responsible for the (depth, at least, of the) hole in which European social democracy now finds itself - down from 35% to 25% of the seats since 1990 and hard pressed to beat 20% in 2020!

A recent Strathclyde University study (Thomson) found that the during the Blair years (1996 - 2008), in nine out of thirteen major policy areas, EU decisions were closer to the UK's desired outcomes than the average of all EU states; in the particularly important areas of Tax and Social Policy, the EU-average desired outcome was twice as far from the result as that of the UK.

This then is the achievement bequeathed to European progressives by New Labour and is unlikely to reversed by Cameron/Osborne/Boris; I would suggest, James, that you and I are no longer young enough to put our faith in a Corbyn rescue squad arriving in time!
It's a shame that the Brits Out! slogan has been taken, and wasted!


And what about the dire warnings from the ESRI today (6th nov) on Brexit?
I did not read its report fully but the media seems to focus on the worst case scenario. Bleak and bad in many ways - some of which could turn out to be.

But I agree with the two Jimmys on the negative impact of Britain has had on Europe and the Social agenda. It is now "corporate Europe." A Single Market for profit and deal-making and the public knows it. That why - disillusion - they are turning against politicians, politics if the even vote it is tending r the extremes. And neither is nice as European history informs us.