Unsurprisingly, the first major Commons defeat for the Coalition reflects the Conservative Party’s dysfunction over Europe, as Labour MPs join the Tory Eurosceptic fringe in the lobbies to vote down the proposition that the EU’s Budget should be frozen in real terms, demanding real-terms cuts instead.
Much of the subsequent comment has focussed on Labour’s position – the incongruity of its joining with the swivel-eyed nationalist wing of the Tory party. Oppositions are there to oppose, we are told (although that argument is a selective one – note Labour’s failure to oppose cuts in public sector pensions); commentators point to John Smith’s Labour Party voting alongside the Maastricht rebels). Faced with the accusation that this is a vote against the EU – partly arising from the triumphalism of anti-Europe Tories – Labour, as Polly Toynbee reports, is desperately trying to trot out its pro-European credentials, with limited success.
Part of the background to this is the almost pathological inability of British politicians – especially on the right – and the British media to have an intelligent conversation about Europe. I spent much of my civil service career negotiating EU legislation, and spent more hours than I would ever care to count sitting in meetings in Brussels with colleagues from around Europe, and in the margins of those meetings conversation often turned to what can only be described as the psychopathology of Britain’s view of Europe; the tendency of British politicians (not least Tory and UKIP MEPs) and the media to behave like the unruly child waving his willy through the park railings at the civilised adults walking past. Urbane Swiss and Norwegian colleagues expressed their astonishment that being forced to sit on the sidelines as guests at the European table, able to watch their destiny being formed without having any power to shape it, could be represented by rational people as “reasserting our sovereignty”. UK negotiators in Brussels became used to the idea that negotiation – often in alliance with other Member States who took strikingly similar positions to our own on things like fiscal autonomy, but did so without the red-topped flag-waving hysteria – needed to be conducted with little regard to the public rhetoric.
It’s also worth noting that the arrival of the Coalition in May 2010 made no difference whatsoever to the fundamentals of Britain’s negotiating position in Brussels. There was a subtle shift in tone – backing British business would be emphasised more explicitly, although there’s obviously a limit to what you can do in a single market – but the basic red lines, especially around EU competence on fiscal issues, remained unchanged.
So to this week’s vote. The EU Budget has long been a battleground, going back to the days of Margaret Thatcher and the rebate. This vote was about the size of that Budget, and whether it should be cut in real terms. The rhetoric that surrounded Labour’s vote in favour of real terms cuts was revealing, with MPs arguing that the Brussels bureacracy needed to face the same austerity that ordinary voters around Europe faced. It’s an attractive line, drawing on all those media tales of armies of bureaucrats contemplating the curvature of bananas, but – as Labour ought to know well – it’s mostly drivel. This is not about the cost of running the Brussels bureaucracy, which contrary to the popular rhetoric is no larger than a large county council (and in my experience was on key issues dangerously under-resourced, leaving policy-makers in the Commission covering large and complex briefs far more open than is wise to the information stream provided by lobbyists and think-tanks); it’s about EU programmes, especially in the regions and often dealing in areas like infrastructure and technology, with much of those resources being focussed on the newer Member States in Central and Eastern Europe that British politicians of all parties were (I think rightly) so keen to welcome into the Union.
Now there are serious debates about the way in which the money is spent – the issues around agricultural spending are all too familiar – but this is about the amount; Labour is effectively arguing for real-terms cuts in those programmes. And if we stop regarding the recipients as foreigners and start thinking of them as markets (I’d prefer to think of them as fellow citizens but that’s another debate) the short-sightedness of Labour’s position appears obvious.
And there are further questions about the longer-term development of the EU. British rhetoric about the EU is still rooted in the old days of Jacques Delors and the use of European powers to drive social goals. There’s still a lot of that about – and the European Commission, like bureaucracies the world over and regardless of their size, is far from averse to the odd power-grab – but the European world has changing, reflecting political changes in the Member States. EU rhetoric is now far more about the power of markets, much less about a social agenda; the astonishing moves towards a new Treaty to entrench a Europe-wide system of financial discipline is a powerful symptom of this. By supporting a cut in the real EU budget, and by couching it in the terms they have, Labour is – wittingly or not – helping to entrench a neoliberal agenda in Brussels and across Europe as a whole.
So, Labour in opposition is seen to be exercising its duty to oppose. But let’s be clear about this – like so much of what Labour does this is safe opposition, because rather than challenging the assumptions of neoliberalism it reinforces them and legitimises them – just like Ed Balls endorsing the Coalition’s cuts and committing Labour to retaining them, or when Liam Byrne dog-whistles about hard-working families.
Therein lies Labour’s problem. By voting as it did this week, it’s not so much that it is siding with the swivel-eyed flag-waving fantasists of UKIP and the Tory Right, it’s more that it’s siding – as ever – with the grey-suited men who are bleeding Greece and Spain and who are salivating over the prospect of adding the NHS to their bottom line. It’s a moment of a Party imprisoned in a neoliberal rhetoric and further illustration – if any were needed – that Westminster is locked in a neoliberal consensus in which nationalistic flag-waving is a permitted distraction from the grey realities underneath.