Clegg opens up coalition wound on Europe
Nick Clegg spoke today about why the Prime Minister’s strategy on EU relations is dangerous and wrong. While we didn’t agree with everything Nick said, we welcomed his emphasis on workers’ rights, because it shows that some in the Coalition, at least, recognise what it is about the EU that has popular appeal, as opposed to factional interest.
Nick is, of course, a traditional pro-European, although he does of course recognise the case for reform: who would want to back the status quo on anything, these days? We don’t agree with all of his priorities for reform, but his intervention made it clear that the fault line on continued European membership doesn’t run right down the middle of British politics, but between a mainstream majority and the hard right: Tory Eurosceptics and UKIP.
And he opened up the prospect of a debate over Europe which focuses on what benefits the majority, rather than on the sectional interests of the City and the europhobes whose main interest is taking Britain back to the society of the 1950s and the non-union workplaces of the 1850s.
Before this all gets a bit “I agree with Nick” it’s worth noting that our agenda for the debate over Europe is quite different from his. We want a people’s Europe, and Nick Clegg is still trapped in the neoliberal assumption that the (common) market knows best and what’s good for European business is good for Europe generally. The last ten years must surely prove otherwise?
Frances O’Grady put the TUC’s side of the argument when she commented on his speech:
“Nick Clegg is right to make the case for the EU and say that paid holidays and other workplace rights are some of the best arguments for EU membership. Leaving the EU would be disastrous for jobs and investment. His views are in stark contrast with the Prime Minister who wants to offer the dismal choice between leaving the EU or staying in a Europe stripped of rights at work. Europe needs to win back popular support, replacing austerity with a people’s plan for jobs-led growth and higher living standards. It needs to go back to its roots by balancing a dynamic economy with social protection and fair shares.”
This, for example, is what Nick Clegg had to say about workers’ rights:
“And it’s right that the UK stays opted out of rules that we believe are damaging – like the 48 hour cap on the working week in the Working Time Directive. It’s important to point out that we’re not ideological about this. Many of the workers’ protections that we now take for granted actually originated in the EU. Guaranteeing paid holiday and regular breaks – they’re also in the Working Time Directive. So there are good bits too; but we need to get the right balance.”
The recognition that paid holidays and regular breaks are a good thing (not least because they’re popular with workers) is worth applauding. But he clearly still doesn’t understand that the ‘cap’ on working hours is very modestly averaged over 4 months, or that the reason for banning long hours is the medical evidence that working longer on a regular basis is actually physically harmful.
But at least we can have a reasonable debate over those issues, as opposed to the ideological, party management-driven repatriation debate that the Prime Minister is engaged in.