Why Europe needs Corbyn

Jeremy Corbyn's Labour Party can lead the way for a new left politics in Europe, writes Luke Cooper

April 18, 2018
14 min read

One of the surprising outcomes of the EU referendum in 2016 has been the creation of a mass pro-European movement. From campaigns such as Stop Brexit to the formation of the New European newspaper and the strengthening of existing groups, such as the European Movement and Open Britain (formerly Britain Stronger in Europe), there are now a wide range of pro-European organisations with significant levels of popular support across Britain.

These groups have tended to draw their support from the political centre. Many on the left have been put off by the prominent figures attached to some of the campaigns, like New Labour’s Alastair Campbell or Conservative MPs such as Anna Soubry. Although this new pro-European movement is a broad church – Green MP Caroline Lucas, for example, has impeccable radical credentials – the overall message often seems to advocate a return to the pre-referendum status quo. Inevitably this has put these organisations out of kilter with the new movements, like Momentum, that support the kind of transformational politics encapsulated by the radicalism of Labour’s 2017 election manifesto.

To reach out to the grassroots social movements requires a different message to the status quo approach. Rather than a return to the pre-referendum Europe, the case for staying in is strongest in relation to the potential role the EU can play in taming the forces of free market globalisation. This starts from the simple fact that many of the policies and ideas put forward by Jeremy Corbyn and others cannot be implemented in national isolation. They require common action at regional and even global level.

Cross-border action

When Corbyn advocated a ‘remain and reform’ agenda in the EU referendum he emphasised the need to tax multinational companies, to regulate finance, address climate change through cross-border action and work for peaceful and humanitarian solutions to global conflicts. At the launch of Labour’s Remain campaign in May 2016, Corbyn was explicit about the need for Britain to work inside the structures of the EU to deliver positive political change for Europe:

‘By working together across our continent, we can develop our economies, protect social and human rights, tackle climate change and clamp down on tax dodgers. You cannot build a better world unless you engage with the world, build allies and deliver change. The EU, warts and all, has proved itself to be a crucial international framework to do that. Collective international action through the European Union is clearly going to be vital to meeting these challenges. Britain will be stronger if we co‑operate with our neighbours in facing them together.’

The need for radical change in Europe hasn’t gone away. And many of Corbyn’s policies require big, ‘system‑level’ change – and not just the election of a socialist government here in Britain. Implementing policies such as a financial transaction (‘Robin Hood’) tax, or creating a minimum floor for corporation tax to stop the race to the bottom, will require a high level of international cooperation.

At the very least, a Labour government would need to work closely with the EU to deliver these goals. But it would face the challenge that there are still many forces in the EU opposed to these policies. The Labour leadership, and the social movements that passionately want to see the Corbyn project succeed, therefore need to be thinking now about how they could directly lead a fight for these proposals across Europe. By working across borders with Labour’s sister parties, the left and civil society, a new political consensus could be forged.

To achieve this would be harder, however, outside the EU. This is because the remaining 27 members would be much more inclined to unite against proposals from a Corbyn-led government outside the EU, than if they came from a Britain that had decided to stay in the club.

A new moment

In The Corbyn Moment and European Socialism, a new publication from the campaigning group Another Europe Is Possible, I argue alongside three co-authors that the project of Europe’s political and social transformation would be thrown backwards by Brexit. In the report we show how a new political conjuncture is emerging in Europe, one that will not last forever. This new moment presents a unique opportunity for radical political intervention.

When Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker said the EU faces an ‘existential crisis’ he reflected the feeling of uncertainty and flux among mainstream technocrats. But the crisis requires bold answers that won’t come from the mainstream. European socialists increasingly recognise that ‘business as usual’ responses will not cut it when nationalist movements are on the rise, austerity politics has failed and anti-establishment feeling can be found in almost every European country.

That’s why when Corbyn has addressed socialist MEPs he has received a rapturous reception. Many politicians can see how under his leadership Labour has bucked the trend towards ‘Pasokification’ by putting forward a clear alternative. The radical policies, the movement organising and the electoral success have not gone unnoticed among European socialist parties.

If Labour were to change tack and seek a democratic way out of Brexit around a ‘remain and reform’ vision for Europe, they would have enthusiastic supporters across the continent. In Portugal, the Socialist Party’s António Costa has led a progressive coalition that has pioneered an investment-based alternative to austerity. Many German social democrats look on the new ‘grand coalition’ with the CDU with great concern. Youth leader Kevin Kühnert has led opposition to the coalition and built links with Momentum so as to learn from its innovative methods. For countries like Portugal to go from outliers to the norm in Europe, they need allies within the European structures pushing harder for an alternative economics.

The sense that change is coming is growing across the continent, and transformative possibilities can be found within existing policy developments. Many of these policies have been opposed by Britain over the decades – in both the Tory and New Labour eras. By turning the tables on neoliberalism in a country many rightly regard as the ‘belly of the beast’, Corbynism opens up new international horizons.

But its ability to capitalise on this will be hamstrung by an exit from the EU. A Labour government that finds itself outside the representative structures of the EU but in a regulatory and customs arrangement, which sees it adopt many of the rules in exchange for a high level of access (as is likely), will not be able to influence the political development of these policy areas in a new and progressive direction.

Let’s look at just some of the areas where Labour could make a difference.

Taxing multinationals

Big corporations have taken advantage of financial liberalisation to manipulate different tax regimes between countries to their advantage. Moving money offshore to tax havens or low-tax economies has become all too easy. But under pressure to act for many years by transnational civil society, and aware of the need to take back the initiative from the populist right, the EU has called for a new political conversation on corporate tax evasion. Existing state aid rules have been used by the Commission to force Apple to pay €13 billion in tax to Ireland – directly challenging the country’s status as a de facto offshore tax haven for corporations within the single market.

This, however, is just a stopgap measure within a broader campaign. The big prize for progressives lies in the moves to agree a minimum level of corporation tax charged by all states within the single market. Known as the ‘common consolidated corporate tax base’, this could end the race to the bottom on taxation altogether.

A Corbyn government could play a critical role in ensuring these proposals are not watered down. As the City of London is a major financial centre, British participation would allow the EU to go further in raising the minimum level without risking a loss of business to the low-taxation, regulation-light British economy that Tory hard Brexiters want.

Financial regulation

There is no clearer example of the negative effects that Brexit is unleashing than in the sphere of financial regulation. Some EU members have lurched towards beggar-thy-neighbour policies as they compete to offer the most lucrative packages for financial firms relocating parts of their business from London to stay in the single market.

This risks throwing backwards some of the positive proposals that have long been suggested. Moves to establish a Robin Hood tax now face an uncertain future. Emmanuel Macron’s proposal to simply generalise the current French version of the tax would exclude derivatives markets and thus render it largely impotent. Banking reform too remains locked in the assumptions of austerity economics. A Corbyn government in the EU could play a central role in reigniting a movement for financial and tax justice, reaching out to civil society and pushing for a strong Robin Hood tax.

Solidarity in the eurozone

Reforming the single currency area is a critical priority for progressives. The appalling treatment of Greece is the clearest example of the threat that the current system represents to the political cohesion of Europe. Outcomes to current policy discussions are still very uncertain. For every proposal advocating a step towards the sharing of economic risk, fiscal harmonisation and a turn to investment-led growth, there is another proposing yet more of the toxic austerity-driven approach.

But this uncertainty also means that a Corbyn government could make the difference. Despite remaining outside the eurozone, it could give its explicit support to those governments working for progressive reform of the euro area. A Europe on the path to sustainable growth would be good for the UK economy and help stabilise a Labour government.

Protecting migrant workers

It has become depressingly commonplace in UK public debate to link immigration with low wages – even some on the left have made this argument. Studies persistently show that immigration does not have a net negative effect on the wage levels of British citizens. But there are a minority of cases where employers have deliberately hired labour from overseas to take advantage of lower labour costs. Often this has been wrongly linked to freedom of movement rights within the EU, which provide a set of rights and responsibilities for EU citizens seeking work in another member country.

Because this system makes it illegal to discriminate against EU workers on grounds of nationality, it provides important protections against the super-exploitation of migrant workers. Often the cases where migrant labour is being deliberately used to undercut wages take place under the posted workers directive, which is part of the free movement in services, not people, component of EU law. This EU directive has been rightly criticised by trade unions for giving a green light to ‘country of origin’ exploitation where workers are employed under the lower pay and conditions of the country they are from, rather than the one they are in.

Fortunately, changes to this system have been agreed by the member states and are now going through the EU parliament. These measures will create an anti-undercutting principle and offer legal protection to trade union-negotiated agreements in the host country. As such, they go a long way to resolving the existing problems.

Open Europe

Alongside the eurozone crisis, the bloody consequences of the politics of ‘fortress Europe’ imperil Europe’s democratic future. At its root this arises from the treatment of the refugee crisis as a security problem, and not a humanitarian one (see page 40). Securitisation has led to a failure to create safe and legal routes for those fleeing war and authoritarianism in the Middle East and North Africa. European member states have been central to this failure.

Although solutions to the crisis are practical and affordable, EU countries, actively supported by Britain, have continually opposed the establishment of a coordinated, large-scale resettlement programme. While Britain is outside of the Schengen system, under the Tories the country has led the way in pioneering the discourses that legitimise the current policy: the focus on ending so-called ‘pull factors’; on stopping ‘people smugglers’ rather than opening legal routes; and the infamous Home Office ‘hostile environment’ for migrants.

A Corbyn government could play a key role in radically shifting the discourse across Europe and giving other governments the confidence to adopt a humanitarian-focused settlement policy.

Climate change

At a time when Donald Trump is abandoning the US commitment to tackle climate change, the EU has maintained a strong policy on the need to transition away from fossil fuels. The ‘Clean energy for all Europeans’ package and the EU roadmap for 100 per cent emission cuts by mid century demonstrate there is a clear institutional momentum to tackle environmental degradation. But this needs to be translated into effective policy tools at a local and national level in order to work.

It is another area where a Corbyn government committed to a plan for sustainable growth could take a clear lead. In particular, for the EU’s sustainable development goals to be met in its external and trade policies, a combination of mass civil society pressure and the conscious intervention of left governments will be vital to move from words to deeds. They will need to stand up to the business lobbies, short termism and national chauvinism that too often get in the way of delivering a bold environmental agenda.

At the heart of our argument is the idea that Labour needs to change the national conversation on Europe and Brexit. There is a clear limit to how far the party can go in its attempt to triangulate between the different tribes of voters. As Brexit drags on, many Leave voters will become disillusioned. It’s up to Labour to offer an alternative that captures anti-establishment feeling but directs it towards the democratic upsurge for a new kind of politics in Europe that we so desperately need.

Such a change would also be central to the practical realisation of the Labour programme. Although the party has an internationalist politics and worldview, it has not taken enough time to consider the strategic steps it will need to take on a regional and global level to implement many of its core policies.

A small window of opportunity is now opening through which Labour can reach out to allies across Europe. If Labour were to seize this chance, then radical new possibilities would open up.

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