It is time to stand up to Tory euroscepticism

Disengagement or withdrawal would be disastrous for British influence and interests.

Something fundamental has changed in the nature of the British debate about Europe over the last 15 years. The last time the Conservatives were in power the division in the party was between those, like John Major, who wanted to remain “at the heart of Europe” and those who sought to renegotiate our membership in order to repatriate large areas of policy from the EU.  Today, the dividing line is between those who want to pick apart even the foundations of the single market and those demanding complete withdrawal.  Damaging disengagement is the new consensus within the Conservative Party – the only disagreements are about scale and timing.

The need to restate the case for our membership of the EU has therefore never been more pressing.  It has also never been more difficult.  The eurozone crisis has undermined confidence in Europe’s ability to act as a force for stability and prosperity, and the instinctive and understandable reaction of many is to pull back.  But the crisis has also revealed the extent of our interdependence with Europe.  The idea that political disengagement will insulate us from the economic problems of our continental neighbours is pure fantasy.  Our national interest lies in arguing for a reformed EU from the inside.

Globalisation has provided many opportunities for businesses and individuals alike, but it has also brought new challenges that even the largest and most powerful countries cannot solve on their own.  Climate change, global economic instability, cross border crime, nuclear proliferation, terrorism and energy security all pose significant risks for our society and our way of life. Dealing with these issues requires international cooperation on an unprecedented scale.

What is needed is joint decision-making and legal enforcement of the kind pioneered by the EU given that global agreements have fallen woefully short of the mark. Compare the success of the EU in driving up environmental standards in Europe with the failure to get sufficient agreement on halting climate change at a global level. Compare the deepening of trade ties within the European single market with the more limited progress made through the World Trade Organisation.

That is why the anti-European arguments espoused by different wings of the Conservative Party deserve closer scrutiny than ever before. The extreme wing of the Conservative Party advocates complete withdrawal from EU membership and the negotiation of separate bilateral trading relationship that would provide access to European markets.  The two examples most commonly cited are Norway and Switzerland.  Both countries certainly have strong economic ties to the rest of Europe, but neither enjoys anything like the freedom from EU laws and regulations that anti-Europeans want us to believe.

Norway belongs to the European Economic Area, which gives non-EU countries access to the single market.  But in exchange for that access, Norway has to adhere to the rules of the single market, including those relating to social and employment policy.  The only substantive difference is that its government has no say over how those rules are formed. It even has to contribute to the EU budget.

Switzerland has a little more flexibility with its mix and match approach defined through a series of bilateral agreements. But the essential principle is exactly the same - the more access it wants to the single market, the more EU legislation it has to transpose without having any say over its content.  For both countries the "democratic deficit" and loss of influence are a result of their non-membership.

The supposedly more moderate and modern wing of the Conservative Party would like to reduce our membership of the EU to a purely trade-based relationship. In this vein, Liam Fox recently argued for a return to the Common Market arrangement the UK first joined in 1973.  Taken literally, this would mean unscrambling the entire single market programme and allowing our competitors to re-impose non-tariff barriers against us.

More broadly, there are great dangers in unpicking the largest internal market in the world.  If we asserted as a matter of principle that countries only have to stick to the rules they like, some might choose to opt-out of limitations on state aids, the requirement to offer public contracts to competitive tender or any among thousands of other market-opening rules required by the EU.  The single market would start to unravel and British exporters would suffer.

The UK is a large member state and should be a strong proponent for an open and reformed EU. That can only be achieved by being at the heart of the Europe, not stranded on the sidelines. Even against the backdrop of the eurozone crisis, it is vital that pragmatic, pro-reform, pro-Europeans now make their voices heard and underline the risks of damaging disengagement or withdrawal that would undermine British influence and interests.

David Cameron speaks at a press conference following a European Union summit at the EU headquarters. Photograph: Getty Images.

Emma Reynolds is shadow housing minister and MP for Wolverhampton North East.

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

Autumn Statement 2015: will women bear the brunt again?

Time and time again, the Chancellor has chosen to balance the books on the backs of women. There's still hope for a better way. 

Today, the Chancellor, George Osborne, presents his Autumn Statement to parliament. Attention will be focused on how he tries to dig himself out of the tax credits hole that he got himself into with his hubristic summer budget.

He’s got options, both in terms of the sweeteners he can offer, and in how he finds the funds to pay for them. But what we will be looking for is a wholesale rethink from the chancellor that acknowledges something he’s shown total indifference to so far: the gender impact of his policy choices, which have hurt not helped women.

In every single budget and autumn statement under this Chancellor, it has been women that have lost out. From his very first so-called “emergency  budget” in 2010, when Yvette Cooper pointed out that women had been hit twice as hard as men, to his post-election budget this summer, the cumulative effects of his policy announcements are that women have borne a staggering 85 per cent of cuts to tax credits and benefits. Working mums in particular have taken much of the pain.

We don’t think this is an accident. It reflects the old-fashioned Tory world view, where dad goes out to work to provide for the family, and mum looks after the kids, while supplementing the family income with some modest part-time work of her own. The fact that most families don’t live like that is overlooked: it doesn’t fit the narrative. But it’s led to a set of policies that are exceptionally damaging for gender equality.

Take the married couple’s tax break – 80 per cent of the benefit of that goes to men. The universal credit, designed in such a way that it actively disincentivises second earners – usually the woman in the family. Cuts and freezes to benefits for children - the child tax credit two-child policy, cuts to child benefit – are cuts in benefits mostly paid to women. Cuts to working tax credit have hit lone parents particularly hard, the vast majority of whom are women.

None of these cuts has been adequately compensated by the increase in the personal tax threshold (many low paid women are below the threshold already), the extension of free childcare (coming in long after the cuts take effect) or the introduction of the so-called national living wage. Indeed, the IFS has said it’s ‘arithmetically impossible’ that they can do so. And at the same time, women’s work remains poorly remunerated, concentrated in low-pay sectors, more often part time, and increasingly unstable.

This is putting terrible pressure on women and families now, but it will also have long-term impact. We are proud that Labour lifted one million children out of poverty between 1997 and 2010. But under the Tories, child poverty has flat-lined in relative terms since 2011/12, while, shockingly, absolute child poverty has risen by 500,000, reflecting the damage that has been by the tax and benefits changes, especially to working families. Today, two thirds of children growing up poor do so in a working family. The cost to those children, the long-term scarring effect on them of growing up poor, and the long-term damage to our society, will be laid at the door of this chancellor.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the age spectrum, low-earning women who are financially stretched won’t have anything left over to save for their pension. More are falling out of auto-enrolment and face a bleak old age in poverty.

Now that the Chancellor has put his calculator away, we will discover when he has considered both about the impact and the consequences of his policies for women. But we have no great hopes he’ll do so. After all, this is the government that scrapped the equality impact assessments, saying they were simply a matter of ‘common sense’ – common sense that appears to elude the chancellor. In their place, we have a flaky ‘family test’ – but with women, mothers and children the big losers so far, there’s no sign he’s going to pass that one either.

That’s why we are putting the Chancellor on notice: we, like women across the country, will be listening very carefully to what you announce today, and will judge it by whether you are hurting not helping Britain’s families. The Prime Minister’s claims that he cares about equality are going to sound very hollow if it’s women who take the pain yet again.