The Conservative voices calling for UK membership of the EU to be reviewed were louder than ever today, with Michael Gove and Philip Hammond joining the chorus. This is almost certainly very bad politics for the Conservatives, as it will keep the party split over Europe open and festering. But it’s also very bad news for British workers, too, if those who want to restructure the relationship between Britain and the EU get their allegedly middle way.
The party politics is clear. Labour needs to steer well clear of this spat (even though that might make it look like they have little to say on the day’s top news story), although the Liberal Democrats could use the issue to rebuild some of their deservedly lost political capital by being the grown up part of the coalition. But for Tories able to think just two or three moves ahead, this is a slow motion car crash in action. The Conservative debate is being played out between outright and ‘moderate’ scepticsm, with the Prime Minister dragged along behind them, which is not really what ‘leadership’ traditionally means.
Conservatives are justifiably worried that UKIP, whilst unlikely to secure any MPs, could easily unseat Conservatives in key marginals. (UKIP has made no recent inroads into Labour support, although there’s no reason why an anti-EU, culturally conservative party couldn’t.) So some Tories are trying to drag their party towards coming out of the EU, and others say the party should renegotiate EU membership (or say they would – dangerous because of its cynicism and the risk involved of getting what you ask for) to excise the elements that UKIP’s voters find most repugnant. Still others are climbing on the bandwagon to free themselves from EU laws that they would ideally want shot of even though they are fully behind an EU of some sort – for example those who want to scrap workers’ rights.
The problems with such strategies for Conservatives are legion. There’s a zero-sum game element to Europe: to move rightwards to shoot UKIP’s fox, the Conservatives have to ditch many things that appeal to centrist voters who thing euro-scepticism is extremism, back the idea of the EU despite its faults, consider the benefits outweigh the costs, or welcome the elements Conservative euro-sceptics dislike such as paid holidays, equal pay, safety at work etc (I’m generalising here about categories that are, of course, not homogenous). Worse still, Conservative arguments over Europe revive memories about the toxic atmosphere of John Major’s government, paint the Prime Minister as a prisoner of his party, and widen the fault-lines in a coalition that needs to survive until 2015.
The reason I would urge Labour to avoid being sucked into the current debate over a referendum or treaty change is partly because there is rarely a benefit to be had from weighing in on one side or the other of an internal Tory argument: you end up looking just as partisan as the Conservatives. And of course Labour could open up some of its own splits on this issue. That doesn’t mean Labour should be quiet about Europe itself – there’s an excellent and popular case to be made for what a better European Union could deliver for One Nation Britain on jobs, growth, climate change and more.
But this debate is also bad for workers. Although this year’s TUC Congress voted overwhelmingly against a referendum and withdrawal, it would be a mistake to see this as a knockout blow by europhiliacs or federalists. Unions are deeply hostile to the austerity being forced on countries like Greece and Ireland, and to the EU fiscal pact that prohibits Keynesian economic policies regardless of whether they get an electoral mandate. And our concern that the EU is being used to force through reductions in wages, social protection and collective bargaining remain strong. It really might not take much to make unions eurosceptics themselves, although that hasn’t happened in the countries worst affected.
And the Conservative argument for reform of the relationship with the EU is often a trojan horse for attacks on workers’ rights. When ‘partially eurosceptic’ groups are forced to say how they would like to see Britain’s relationship with the EU changed, workers’ rights are often top of the list. And this is often in line with employer agendas too, at least if they think that a moderate euroscepticism could help them hold off any further pro-worker legislation. The recent EU proposals (known as Monti II) for rebalancing the relationship between capital and labour to address European Court judgments on industrial action were opposed by unions because they were too limited, but by Conservatives and business groups because they were happy with the current position.
With unions lining up against a referendum and against withdrawal, the view of employers is still not clear. In our experience, most employers are about as horrified by Conservative eurosceptics as US employers are with Republican creationists. But, banking on the pragmatists in the Conservative Party and their Liberal Democrat allies, and concerned about public opinion, employers have ducked the battle, as they so often do over migration, and waited for the benefits to drop into their lap: reduced workers’ rights on Europe, low-paid workers through migration. Employers need to stand up and be counted, and they need to recognise that if the EU doesn’t provide benefits for everyone – free trade for business, rights for workers – they might well lose it all.