The Labour Party’s divisions over Europe have always existed, although Brexit has brought them to unprecedented prominence. Instinctively, any strategist (armchair or otherwise) looking to unite the party on this issue is going to want to find a compromise position that combines a clear-eyed view of the necessity of at least avoiding No Deal, with the appearance of a streetwise aloofness towards the opaque buildings and mysterious institutions of the European Union. After all, the disconnect between Brussels and voters, however much it might be attributable to poor communication and misinformation, is clearly real. To ignore this, is surely to lose touch.
However, as understandable as this instinct is, its value is cynically instrumental at best: it is quite possible to do much better by simply being honest. We don’t have to assume that Brexit is inevitable. Nobody wants the Withdrawal Agreement as it stands, and No Deal has neither the support of Parliament nor of the public. The European Parliament election results – let alone the polls – have also comprehensively busted the myth that Labour’s heartlands are eternally wedded to the idea of Brexit.
The “remain, reform, and rebel” line is particularly attractive to those who accept the necessity of remaining but still feel uncomfortable without some kind of Eurosceptic credential to tout. It is easy to sympathise with them. The problem is that “reform” is vague (however necessary), and “rebel” even more so. Articulating what exactly can and should change in the EU does not make for a rousing slogan. Claiming rebel status is frankly dishonest given that, in the end, Labour’s MEPs reluctantly agreed to confirm the centre-right non-spitzenkandidat Ursula von der Leyen as commission president, and are generally no more or less amenable to political compromise than any of their cousins in the Party of European Socialists. It’s business as usual.
There is however, a fairly simple rule of thumb for getting the criticism right while being unabashedly pro-European. That is to see and speak of the EU as a supranational extension of our politics and another natural level of the same political system, rather than as a separate monolithic entity. Unless Brexit actually happens, this is sufficiently accurate; what it achieves is a reallocation of blame that doesn’t give further ammunition to Brexiteers.
Good criticism of the European Union is analogous to good criticism of Westminster, or of the devolved administrations. It is less about the level of government itself than about its decisions, structures, and partisan direction at a given point in time. In particular the EU is lambasted on the left for its imposition of austerity on Greece, yet it is unfair to characterise this as being more about the supposedly immutable nature of the EU as it is about the failing economic orthodoxies of the right.
In short, Labour should campaign against the European People’s Party and any party to the right of them just as they campaign against the Conservatives domestically. The European People’s Party has a cuddly, One-Nationesque vibe which is largely superficial, and their record on the environment during the 2014-19 parliament was even worse than the less powerful but more (deservedly) infamous nationalists. For a party which never wins a majority in the European Parliament, it has been- and continues to be – vastly overrepresented in the “top jobs”.
The European People’s Party does not live up to its benevolent sounding name. The preeminent guardians of the status quo which caused the pain driving today’s populists, they have also worked hand in glove with those populists, failing to expel Fidesz from their ranks even as Viktor Orbán erodes the rule of law and democracy in Hungary. Ursula von der Leyen was chosen over Frans Timmermans of the Dutch Labour Party on the insistence of Orbán and his ilk- something about which Labour should have been far more concerned. The European People’s Party succeeds in part by being somewhat coy about its own existence; encompassing a broad-church of conflicting parochial national interests, they are able to distract from their free-market partisan monopolies with a plausible veneer of internal diversity. During the spitzenkandidat debates, their leader Manfred Weber was essentially defenseless against progressive criticisms. Despite this, our various national leaders decided to simply replace him with another candidate from the same party.
Opposing the European People’s Party is perhaps the most effective way to avoid legitimate criticisms becoming co-opted as arguments for leaving the EU, but the arguments over policy and structure cannot be entirely reduced to this. A further vital distinction to draw, rather than vaguely saying that the EU should be more democratic, is to concentrate our fire on the intergovernmental aspects of the EU. Nationalists have become adept at playing a merciless game of bait and switch in this regard, because strengthening democracy in the EU always comes at the cost of the rights of member states. It isn’t tenable to convince anyone that we care equally about these mutually exclusive ideals, and as social democrats we should confidently advocate moving the dial in favour of more supranational democracy.
The intellectual case for this kind of reform is not too difficult to justify. Clearly, MEPs have a stronger mandate for dealing with European issues than national leaders. They are also more proportionally representative and include opposition parties- compared to say Emmanuel Macron who was elected in a different year (and mainly for being less bad than his opponent Le Pen), or our own PM, whose legitimacy rests on the blatant pork that bought the confidence and supply deal with the DUP. To them, Europe is necessarily an afterthought, while it is the European Parliament’s day job. It is perhaps best to simply attack “intergovernmentalism” rather than “EU intergovernmentalism”, the same way we wouldn’t habitually note the Britishness of our domestic democratic deficits such as first past the post and the House of Lords.
It is also important to credit the reforms that are already on the cards. Von der Leyen, whatever her flaws, has pledged to attempt to revive the spitzenkandidat system in some form, to allow the European Parliament a de-facto right of legislative initiative, and a gender balanced commission. These things are hardly making the headlines, and Labour should really be making more noise about them, especially if they want to justify their decision to vote for her. Labour should wear its links to the Party of European Socialists with pride, but also be willing to learn from progressives in other blocs and be as critical of the alliance’s rogue members (such as the Slovak party Smer) as it ought to be of its own cranks and anti-semites, and dare I say it, leadership.
The crucial weakness of the more lukewarm approach to EU participation is that it rests on accepting one of the most toxic narratives of our times unchallenged. The alternative – of countering it with a narrative that allocates the same blame more fairly while offering meaningful solutions – is very much within reach.