David Cameron has finally announced the long-awaited European Union Referendum for Thursday 23rd June. Much of the media coverage has focused on the divisions within the Conservative Party, especially between Cameron and Boris Johnson. This is an argument about the future of our country. The pro-European case must not be restricted to moderate Tories; there is a centre-left progressive case for Britain’s EU membership that needs hearing.
The arguments so far have focussed on the economic case for Britain’s membership of the EU. Britain does much of its trade with the EU. This is the economic life blood of our small and medium-sized businesses, and with it the thousands of jobs that depend on them. A threat to our free trade with Europe would increase the price of everyday goods, what the Liberals a century ago dubbed “stomach taxes”. However, there’s much more to our membership of the EU than just economics.
The heart of the progressive case is the social benefits that EU membership guarantees. The EU is an engine for workers’ rights; from protecting the right to holiday leave, to limiting working hours, to guaranteeing paid maternity leave, to ensuring equal treatment for part-timers. EU health and safety regulations protect European workers from risks in the workplace. In addition, the EU ensures equal opportunities for both women and men at work. Thanks to European health policy, British people abroad in the EU can get access to NHS services. The EU has worked to tackle discrimination on the grounds of gender, age, race, religion, disability and sexual orientation.
Something that’s rarely talked about is how the UK benefits from regional development funding. Between 2007 and 2013, Cornwall, Wales and North Western Scotland received convergence funding designed to create jobs and growth as well as develop economies in deprived regions. In the same period the regions of England received over €2 billion to create jobs and improve competitiveness. One and a half billion Euros went to the North of England alone.
Britain must not abandon the European Social Model of welfare, public services, workers’ rights and investment to create jobs and growth. What makes European capitalism distinctive is its historic willingness to combat social and economic inequalities. Compare this to American capitalism, which has always been uneasy about progressive state intervention, social welfare and workers’ rights. Leaving the EU would strengthen neoliberal Thatcherites and their right wing ideology. British social liberals and social democrats must make the social case for EU membership.
In defending the EU, we must not forget the big picture. The EU is the most successful peace process in history. Seventy-five years ago, most of Europe lived under fascist tyranny. Thirty years ago, half of Europe lived in the Communist Bloc. Former dictatorships in the Mediterranean and central and eastern Europe are now part of a liberal and democratic EU. Europe was torn apart in the last century by competing nationalisms that gave way to two world wars. Cooperation, not national completion, is what must define the Continent.
Sovereignty is likely to become a big issue in the Referendum. Far from undermining our sovereignty, in many respects the EU enhances it. The UK actively pools its sovereignty with twenty-seven other nations. The European Arrest Warrant helps us to bring criminals to justice across borders. European unity has the potential to help us deal with international financial instability and the refugee crisis. Nothing will threaten UK sovereignty in the next few decades like the threat of climate change. The EU has led the way in developing renewable energy, improving air quality, protecting green spaces and reducing carbon emissions.
We must not turn our backs on the present phase of human civilisation. Many countries on Earth are part of continental unions or groupings. Continental unions exist across Europe, Africa, South America and South East Asia. In an age of globalisation, twenty-eight nations working together can achieve so much more than one nation ever could by itself. The EU is the vehicle to redress the grievances caused by global free markets, inequality and climate change.
Progressives need to proudly defend liberal, internationalist, green, and social democratic Europe. Britain has to remain in the EU to protect jobs, trade, workers’ rights, regional development, the environment, justice and peace. If we want to tackle discrimination, social inequality and climate change; we must be active members of the EU.
The United Kingdom must be at the heart of the European Union, the future of progressive politics depends upon it.