Europe is once again turning into a graveyeard for the Tories. They must be insane gratuitously to be stirring up opposition even within their own ranks over prolonged austerity, gay marriage and the EU. Labour is having a field day watching all this from the sidelines, but simply relying on your opponent’s mistakes is no way to show leadership at a critical turning point for the nation. And the gathering momentum on the Tory Right and in the Tory media, hysterical though much of it is, is clearly one such juncture. The polls indicate a small majority in favour of exiting the EU, but that is hardly surprising when the case for staying in, which is overwhelming, is hardly being articulated at all.
The motivation on the Tory Right is that they do not want to be part of anything which they do not themselves control or can dominate. Yet the fundamental problems for Britain at this time – a rapidly deteriorating trading position, deepening austerity, a dysfunctional banking system, low capital investment and low productivity, profound inequality, and a dogmatic obsession with marketisation irrespective of the evidence – are all self-inflicted at home, not caused by membership of the EU. Hence leaving the EU won’t alleviate any of Britain’s deepest problems; it will simply expose how far blaming the EU as a convenient whipping-post has concealed our own home-built follies.
The Tory Tea Party want to use a EU treaty revision (sought by Germany to impose stronger fiscal responsibility rules on the eurozone, though Merkel is now reneging on this) to secure the repatriation of social and employment laws, a veto over any future regulation of financial services, and the right to opt-out from policing and criminal justice rules. On the first, the Tories have always wanted the single economic market, but with none (or the minimalist least) of the safeguards designed to protect labour from exploitation. Their second goal – hands off the City of London – is risible after the financial catastrophe of 2008-9. Their third is misguided when so much international crime now demands common and co-operative standards and procedures for the policing and judicial authorities across Europe. But on all three matters what they never point out is that all EU regulations have always required unanimous agreement (except in cases of QMV, again where that has been unanimously agreed), so that the idea that measures have been ‘imposed’ on Britain against our will is simply untrue.
But when is Labour going to campaign for the much stronger positive case? That exit from the EU would leave Britain isolated and deprived of serious political influence in a world of continental super-powers. That , as the Americans are making clear, it would undermine the ‘special relationship’ with the US (insofar as it has ever existed), not strengthen it. That, contrary to Tory Right fantasies, we would not serendipitously retain access to the single market whilst evading compliance with the spectrum of EU regulations, since the experience of Norway and Switzerland proves the reverse. That, yes, there are certainly deep flaws in the current structure and operation of the EU, but the best way by far to counter them is not Brexit, but rather to make allies to get them changed from within (though it is hugely ironic that the one thing that is currently tearing the EU apart is Merkel’s fixation with austerity to which the UK Tories are fully signed up).