Tommy Sheppard

MP for Edinburgh East

The Positive Case for Europe

The Positive Case for Europe

I will be voting to stay in the European Union in June. This is not in the belief that everything is in perfect working order, but in the hope that we can work with neighbouring countries to turn it into a much better institution than it is now.

I hope that Scotland will soon be an independent country but to get things done, whether at home or abroad, we will have to work together with other countries. An independent Scotland will have to work with the rest of Britain on a great number of things. And we’ll certainly need to work together across Europe. This means choosing to share or pool sovereignty and there’s nothing wrong with that - providing that choice is freely made and people have the right to change their mind.

The EU has evolved over my lifetime from a trading agreement to an international organisation capable, when it chooses, of changing the world for the better. As I see it, the main problem is a lack of democracy. The unelected Commission and the Council of Ministers still exert far more control than the elected parliament. I’d like to see this relationship change. You might think those that witter on about Euro red tape would welcome control being taken out of the hands of unelected Eurocrats. But actually, they are even more against that than the status quo. That would mean a closer union - with the peoples of EU countries having a more direct say - and Eurosceptics really don’t like that.

I worry that the arguments for and against in this referendum have been negative and venal. It’s as if each side has a “project fear” telling you the world will end if you vote one way or another. Of course jobs and prices are important, but actually you can argue this either way and these are not the compelling arguments as to why we should be part of Europe. We need to lift our eyes and look at the big picture.

The number one argument is that nation states – including in years to come Scotland – are facing global forces much bigger than they are. To have a chance of controlling them we must work together. Whether that be dealing with the refugee crisis, climate change, or standing up to multinational corporations. The job will be easier if we have a joint plan with others.

The second argument is that sharing cultures and allowing freedom of movement across the continent is not only a good thing for the individuals involved, but it provides a powerful bulwark against ethnic, religious and national conflict. I don’t think we can look enough at the history of twentieth century Europe, and the devastation of the Second World War, without realising that our grandparents argued for European unity in an effort never to be visited again by such despair.

I find the right wing arguments against the EU wholly unconvincing. Then again, I find right wing arguments unconvincing most of the time. For the most part the Brit Nats in UKIP and the Tory party want out of Europe because they don’t want controls on global corporations, they don’t want action on climate change, and they certainly don’t want us to accept our international obligations when it comes to refugees and the legacy of war. They are mean spirited and mean minded bigots gaining strength from each other’s paranoia and xenophobia.

It is the arguments on the left that I find more interesting. Most on the left of politics will vote to remain in the EU but there is still a strand of left-wing opinion that sees the EU as some kind of capitalist conspiracy to oppress the workers of Europe. I don’t buy this.

I fully accept that there have been times, the most recent being last year in relation to Greece, when EU Commissioners have behaved in a lamentable and reactionary manner. But the EU is a complex political structure which provides an arena for political struggle in much the same way as national parliaments do. Okay, it’s not perfect and needs democratised, but does anyone believe Westminster doesn’t need fundamental reform?

The EU has undeniably made improvements in the conditions for working people across the continent: maximum working hours; maternity and paternity pay, rights at work, etc. Whether it benefits the workers or the bosses depends on who is winning at the time. When socialist and social democratic governments across Europe were in the majority they made progress. In recent years things have rolled back.

Amongst other names, I’m proud to call myself a socialist. But that doesn’t mean that I can’t recognise differences, and sometimes contradictions, within capitalism that can be used to advance things for ordinary people. I’d have more faith in German industrialists investing in the long term development of their economy than the casino capitalists of the City of London for whom the fastest buck is the best.

In my view we need not only to stay in the EU, but to work to make it more effective and more democratic. That’s an entirely different perspective from David Cameron’s. He seems to want to stress how much we’ll be able to opt out of anything the EU may decide. Hopefully in the coming referendum debate we can rediscover some of the principles on which the EU was founded and start imagining how it can be made into a powerful progressive institution.

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Friday, 20 September 2019

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