Skip navigation.

Engaging Europe

Cleo Wilder


If we are serious about financial regulation, environmental protection, and social justice, social democracy needs Europe. But, equally, now more than ever, Europe needs social democracy.


Writing in the Guardian earlier this year, Ulrich Beck was emphatic about the central place of Europe in any progressive political response to the economic crisis:

In the world risk society, faced with the menacing aggregation of global problems that resist national solutions, nation-states left to their own devices are powerless, incapable of exercising sovereignty. The pooled sovereignty of the EU provides the only hope for every nation and every citizen to live in freedom and peace. Those who harm the union harm themselves. (Beck, 2009)

The present issue of Renewal takes up this challenge. The crisis underlines that it is time to move the debate on from ‘why Europe?’ to ‘how Europe?’ Principally, how can we harness the opportunities presented by our membership of the European Union to create a new society that is ‘secure, green and fair’? (Cruddas and Nahles, 2009).

There is after all a natural affinity between social democracy and the European project, which share the same basic principles: that we have a responsibility towards each other; that we achieve more collectively than we do individually; and that we aspire to unity without sacrificing diversity. Consider these examples of what the Union actually does, or has the potential to do:

  • The single currency: the Euro is more than just an economic innovation, it is a highly visible and practical every day demonstration of the value of the Union. There is undoubtedly a unifying pull when all Eurozone citizens carry the same coins in their pockets. Now rivalling the dollar as an international reserve currency, it also has the potential to serve as a powerful lever of progressive economic policy, both within Europe and beyond.
  • Social protection: as free market commentator Martin Wolf has noted with dismay, ‘much of the action of the EU has, hitherto, been liberalising. But most of the liberalisation of EU internal markets has now occurred. Over the past one-and-a-half decades … the notion of “social Europe” has become more entrenched. What has been needed for this purpose is the operation of the EU as a cartel of governments aiming to curb the impact of markets upon them and their citizens’ (Wolf, 2004).
  • Wealth re-distribution: The Euromemorandum group’s proposals (outlined in this issue) for raising EU expenditure to 5 per cent of GDP by enabling the Union to levy eco-taxes and taxes on financial transactions open up a world of possibilities. As Jon Cruddas and Andrea Nahles argue, cooperation between member-states over taxation also reduces the scope for evasion and competitive tax-cutting (Cruddas and Nahles, 2009, 14).
  • Financial regulation: as the Euromemorandum Group argue in this issue, the EU offers a critical point of leverage over the financial services industry. And as Poul Nyrup Rasmussen says, the European left has been pushing for a tougher approach for years; now, the momentum building behind his own proposals could pose a real challenge to interests who have hitherto seemed untouchable (Walsh, 2009).
  • Poverty reduction: 79 million Europeans live in relative poverty. The European Network Against Poverty has proposed Europe-wide targets for poverty reduction (EAPN, 2009) and trade unions and academics have long called for a European living wage policy. This could take the form of using the Open Method of Co-ordination to oblige member states to increase minimum wages to a level corresponding to at least 50 per cent of national average income.
  • Job creation: the EU unemployment rate is expected to rise above 10 per cent this year, the highest since the Second World War. Co-ordinated fiscal stimulus combined with collaboration on regulatory and industrial measures to channel new economic activity into strategic and sustainable forms of production and technology development could do far more than any action by individual member states.
  • Research, development and innovation: Whether it's stem cell research or unlocking the secrets of the big bang, the pooled expertise and funding that the EU can bring together creates a far greater potential for innovation than any single member state could achieve on its own.
  • Joint ventures: These are not only valuable for ‘big business’ like the pan-European aircraft manufacturer Airbus, but also for a range of actors including SMEs, service providers, NGO and research networks – creating both a bigger pie and more beneficiaries.
  • Education: Particularly in higher education, the EU can facilitate greater mobility of both students and academics through a more structured programme of exchanges, the mutual recognition of degrees, and a ‘Eurogrant’ accessible to all students and academics to enable a term abroad as an essential component of all European degrees.
  • Space exploration: The European Space Agency lists its objectives not only as pioneering ‘outstanding scientific discoveries’ but also creating ‘a stronger, richer European identity’. The US put a man on the moon, perhaps the EU will go to Mars (which is exactly where some in the British press corps would like to send EU officials no doubt)
  • Culture: American dominance of our TV screens has allowed us to pick up the lingo of the streets of Baltimore through The Wire yet we have little appreciation of the cultural fabric of our European neighbours. The advent of digital opens up possibilities for pan-European TV channels and radio stations.


The dead end of anti-Europeanism

Why is it then, when Europe holds so much potential for furthering the collective good, that euroscepticism is on the rise? While it is important to recognise the value of ‘intelligent euroscepticism’ that seeks to knowledgeably interrogate the EU (see Anderson, 2007), it is still the case that the bulk of anti-European sentiment is sustained by ignorance. Niamh Gallagher and Michelle O’Donnell-Keating describe how wilful distortion of ‘the facts’ of Europe influenced the outcome of the Lisbon treaty referendum campaign in Ireland. In the UK, such distortion has become a political tactic of both the left and the right, made possible by the failure to address a general lack of understanding of the real implications of our membership of the European Union.

For the left, the EU is fine as long as it is passing laws which further social and environmental justice. For the right the EU is acceptable as long as it is promoting market liberalisation and competition. But these are political debates, not debates about the value of the Union per se.

It has become all too easy for political parties to fail to engage with Europeon policy terms by dismissing EU developments they don’t like with the lazy argument that it is wrong for the EU to ‘interfere’ – even though they have painstakingly negotiated and ratified treaties which give the EU legislative competence in a number of crucial areas. Our political parties have seldom shown much appetite for explaining and defending the supranational nature of EU governance they have signed up to – with the necessary pooling of sovereignty and consensus-building among twenty-seven diverse members and seven political groups that this entails. Instead, they opportunistically seek electoral advantage by playing up to an underlying euroscepticism in UK political discourse instead of challenging it.

This is not to say that the European institutions and powers should be immune from critique. An ongoing watchfulness and a process of reform of our democratic structures is necessary to ensure their sustainability – witness debates about a bill of rights, devolution and electoral reform here in the UK. But imagine if every time we were confronted with a policy or government we didn’t like, we didn’t address the issues concerning that policy or government on their own terms, but questioned the very legitimacy of the overall democratic architecture?

This is why some of the ways in which the left has responded to European developments and the crisis, such as in the No2EU campaign mentioned in John Hilary’s article, are arguably counterproductive. We have to fight for the things we want the EU to deliver the same way we fight for change in the domestic sphere – winning the arguments in policy terms, and winning power by mobilising voters behind a popular programme.

The left has understandably become disillusioned with the EU since conservative victories throughout Europe led to both a conservative majority in the Council of Europe and in the European Parliament. But that’s democracy. But we cannot afford to be a fair-weather friend when it comes to Europe. By denigrating not the right for its policies, but Europe itself for deigning to make policy, we only contribute to the general disenchantment with the EU which feeds euroscepticism and ultimately (and ironically) ends up only benefiting the right again at the ballot box. As Beck states, by seeking to harm the Union we only harm ourselves.


Europe beyond the market

So let’s accept the premise that we are in the EU and that this a good thing. Lest we forget, important progress which we now take for granted – be it in the areas of health and safety in the workplace, the right to paid holiday, anti-discrimination, working time, parental leave – has been driven by Europe. Not only that, but the EU bestows another level of protection to these gains; the fact that principles like equal rights for part time workers and the 48 hour working week are enshrined in European law make it very difficult for a new incoming government to overturn them. Moreover, Europegives us another avenue of recourse; there are countless examples where the European Court of Justice (ECJ) has been more progressive in its interpretation of the law than the British judiciary.

That statement will no doubt give rise to cries of ‘Laval!’ and ‘Viking!’ – two of the rulings where the ECJ has been condemned by the left for prioritising the principles of the free market over trade union rights (which the European Commission has promised to address in its new term). But while the ECJ and its judgements should be subject to vigilant scrutiny, it would be disingenuous to forget that this is the same institution that has delivered progressive results in areas like equal pay and fairness in the workplace. Calls from some quarters that we should respond to ECJ rulings that we don’t like by refusing to abide by them, once again fall into the trap of running down the very edifice of the EU rather than engaging in a constructive way to achieve reform.

As the struggles over the European Constitution and now the Lisbon treaty demonstrate, Europe has found itself trapped in a vicious circle which risks stifling the possibility of any such reform, and hence the hope for a social democratic programme of change. In essence, change is not possible without the support of the people, but without change in Europe this support will be difficult to secure.

For some, Europe’s biggest achievement is the single market. The European Commission estimates that the single market has generated €240bn-worth of growth, 2.75 million extra jobs and has allowed fifteen million European citizens to live or work in another European country. But the EU institutions have become over-reliant on the notion that the single market’s achievements speak for themselves, and as Laurie Waller’s article warns, complacent about the need to secure the consent and backing of Europe’s citizens. A Europe of the market will struggle to engender loyalty. For that Europe arguably needs to do three things: define and embody common values; deliver public goods; and demonstrate that it can be a force for good in the wider world.

The first two are inextricably tied. Contrary to how European conservatives see European identity, the embodiment of shared values does not have to be about affirming Europeas a ‘Christian club’, nor does it have to be about asserting a common Eurocentric view of the world. It’s not necessarily about flags and anthems either. When asked, UK citizens cite the NHS and the post-war welfare settlement as key elements of their pride in being British. Katrine Kielos makes the same point about Sweden, where the state’s role in helping to secure prosperity, jobs and public services for all has been instrumental in laying the foundations for national unity. (It is worth noting here former Commissioner Mario Monti’s suggestion that the best way of countering nationalist and anti-European sentiment amidst the current crisis may be for social market economies like France and Germany and ‘Anglo-Saxon’ economies like the UK and Ireland to converge on a Nordic-inspired model for the EU that offers strong social safety nets, secured through greater tax co-ordination, as the necessary accompaniment of market integration (Monti, 2009)).

Europe needs to do more to win hearts and minds; whether mitigating insecurity, re-distributing wealth, promoting and protecting the commons and so on. That will mean addressing some of the barriers towards achieving the kind of social democratic settlement that Europe lacks. Andrej Stuchlík and Christian Kellermann sketch the institutional limits to the EU’s power to pursue a social agenda – most of the essential components of social policy lie solely within the jurisdiction of member states.

Gerassimos Moschonas tackles the political consequences of this. He argues that the European Union as currently configured is not amenable to ideological manipulation or radical change by either the left or the right, but that given how much of the right’s and comparably less of the left’s political agenda Europe already embodies, this presents a far larger problem for the left. But none of these problems are insurmountable. As this editorial argues, it is only be rejecting reactionary anti-Europeanism and engaging seriously with the progressive possibilities of the European project that we can begin to shape a more productive European debate.

On the third point, demonstrating that Europecan be a force for good in the world, the scope for Europe to exert beneficial influence globally is more promising. When the EU sets the rules for the single market it is also setting rules for any country which wants to trade in that market, so European directives which regulate food safety or chemicals are pored over as intently in India and China as they are in Italy or Poland. In other areas like financial regulation, climate change, migration and cross border crime, Europe is often at the centre of negotiating norms which come to define the global order. Nevertheless current controversies within the Commission and the Parliament over the Global Europe trade strategy and Economic Partnership Agreements being negotiated with African, Caribbean and Pacific countries illustrate that the EU’s contribution to equitable global development cannot be taken for granted but is, again, a key area for political contestation (see John Hilary in this issue, and Cruddas and Nahles, 2009, 15).


The UK debate

Those of us craving substantive debate about all these issues can’t fail to have been disappointed by the European election campaign in the UK. Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens are all running on a platform of ‘vote for us to keep the BNP out’. Labour’s Deputy Leader even instructed party officials not to mention ‘Europe’ if it can be avoided. This consigns European issues to the Conservatives and UKIP, who are only too happy to talk about Europe so that they can run it down. But even they are reluctant to articulate European policies. The Conservatives have run a single-issue campaign based solely on the promise of a referendum on the Lisbon treaty. And that UKIP is now a shadow of the party it once was can hardly be a cause for optimism now that the BNP threatens to take its place.

Despite record low turnout at the last European elections, none of our political parties have covered themselves in glory when it comes to articulating European politics and policy, or fulfilling what is surely their democratic duty to act as channels for informing and engaging the public in debate about the EU.

Following the struggle for the heart of the Conservative Party on the question of Europe during John Major’s term, polarisation has given way to crystallisation of the anti-European creed under Cameron. The withdrawal of the Conservative delegation of MEPs from the mainstream conservative grouping in the European Parliament, the European People’s Party (EPP), demonstrates the power of this current over Tory strategy. The EPP are the majority party in the European Parliament and as members, Cameron’s MEPs hold powerful positions such as Vice President of the parliament, chairs of parliamentary committees, and rapporteurs on pivotal pieces of legislation such as the Services Directive. To give all this up, and to break ties with political powerhouses like the German Christian Democrats to join up with the likes of the homophobic Polish Law and Justice Party and the xenophobic Danish People’s Party, is a rare example of a political party wilfully relinquishing power to take its place in the political wilderness. That this decision hasn’t come under the scrutiny it deserves in the UKis as much an indictment of the failures of our media and political class to properly engage in European questions as it is of Cameron’s political judgement.

There were hopes that the Liberal Democrats might be able to break free of this mould when former MEP Nick Clegg became leader. But their unwillingness to support the government over ratification of the Lisbon treaty showed that Clegg was just as willing to sacrifice Europefor political opportunism at home as other parties have been.

As if this picture of the UK political scene wasn’t depressing enough for the committed European, even the UK Greens are professed eurosceptics. This puts them (along with the Swedish Green Party) at odds with most of the Green group in the European Parliament, dominated by the more pro-European German and French parties, with thirteen and six MEPs respectively. Despite the fact that the vast majority of our environmental legislation originates in Europe (Dimas, 2007), and the EU has delivered more and better legislation in this area than any member state could on its own, the UK Greens continue to portray Europe as a capitalist club promoting markets at the expense of people and planet.

The Labour Party has divested itself of its historic hostility towards the European Union. But Blair and Brown have always been more comfortable brandishing their Europhile credentials in Brussels and Strasbourg than in the UK. Brown’s widely hailed Strasbourg speech, in which he proposed ‘that we in Europe take a central role in replacing what was once called the old Washington consensus with a new principled economy for our times’, was extraordinary not only in its emphatic affirmation of Europe, but also in the enunciation of a Brown vision of the European project we scarcely knew he held (Brown, 2009). Search in Brown speeches – nay in the speeches of any government minister – delivered on home soil for statements like ‘I stand before you … proud to be European’, or ‘there is only one Europe and it is our home’, and you’ll be hard pressed to find any such references.

Making our pride in our EU membership a reality means having the political courage to take on the Murdoch press, it means crediting Europe for its successes not just admonishing its shortcomings, it means embracing a serious debate about the Euro, and it means having faith that if the public truly are presented with ‘the facts’ of Europe – and not just an unending assault of bendy banana stories – they can be trusted to take an informed role in the debate.


A new political context

With few people now betting against a Conservative victory in the general election, we are faced with the prospect of a deeply eurosceptic government that will seek to further marginalise us from Europe. The only forces which might prevent them from doing so are a public attuned to the value of our EU membership; a business sector and trade union community who are ready to speak up for the material benefits Europe brings; and a media which is willing to give European politics the attention it deserves, let alone the balance it needs.

The Labour Party has done too little to put these safeguards in place, to build a broad coalition of support for Europe, to challenge the euromyths. If Labour is left licking its wounds over low turnout in the European elections and a poor result for its MEPs, and watching helplessly after the next election as the Conservatives carelessly undo any goodwill Labour has managed to build up with our European partners over the past decade, a period of honest reflection will no doubt lead to the realisation that we reap what we sow.

The economic crisis should be the trigger that forces not only the Labour Party, but the left in general, to reconsider how it fits Europe into its overall programme for a good society. If we are serious about genuine financial regulation; equipping ourselves with the skills and innovations to re-start our economies and breed growth and jobs; alongside trade, environmental and social justice; then social democracy needs Europe.

But equally importantly, if Europe is to maintain its relevance and value to its citizens and ensure that the European project doesn’t stop with the single market, then more than ever, Europe needs social democracy.



Anderson, P. (2007) ‘Depicting Europe’, London Review of Books 29 (18).

Beck, U. (2009) ‘The economic crisis cries out to be transformed into the founding of a new Europe’, The Guardian 13.04.2009.

Brown, G. (2009) ‘PM speech to European Parliament’, 24.04.2009.

Cruddas, J. and Nahles, A. (2009) Building the Good Society: The project of the democratic left, Londonand Berlin, Compass, available at

Dimas, S. (2007) ‘Celebrating the Environmental Union’, BBC News, Science and Environment, 23.03.2007, available at

European Anti-Poverty Network (2009) ‘Key demands for the next European parliament’, Anti-Poverty Magazine 20.04.2009.

Monti, M. (2009) ‘How to save the market economy in Europe’, Financial Times 6.04.2009.

Walsh, K. (2009) ‘The Dane who wants to put the boot into hedge funds’, Sunday Times 3.05.2009.

Wolf, M. (2004) ‘No way to create a dynamic Europe’, Financial Times 6.04.2004.