The UK is in the lucky position of having our cake and eating it. Photo: Alexander Klein/AFP/Getty
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An EU explainer for the easily bored: where does the UK stand?

Frances Robinson continues her series on what we really need to know about the EU. This week: should the UK stay or should it go?

Age: We’ve been in since 1973. So, getting to that stage where it’s a little rude to ask.

Why did we join? All kinds of reasons, but the main one was being in a free trade bloc, coupled with a recognition that economic and political cooperation would maintain peace and prosperity.

Was there a party? The 1974 Tour de France came over for a stage on the newly-opened Plympton bypass. Grumpy customs officials held up cyclists before what one rider called “the most boring stage I’ve ever, ever ridden”.

Haven’t times changed! Yes, totally. The 2014 Grand Départ in Yorkshire was such a roaring success, the region is having its own standalone cycling extravaganza this summer. Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome are cycling legends.

I mean the EU. A referendum would be unprecedented! Except for the precedent of the 1975 referendum, when 67 per cent voted to stay in.

Oh. What happened next? Gradually, over decades, it became a single market, an idea championed by the UK. This now consists of the free movement of goods, services, capital and people between member states. More countries joined. Some aspects of the single market got completed, others still need a lot of work. We got plenty of special treatment by carefully negotiating a series of carve-outs and exceptions. For some countries, it became an even closer union with the launch of the single currency.

What, like the rebate? Yes. In 1984, after epic negotiations, Margaret Thatcher won back part of our contribution, because we don’t benefit as much as other members from the Common Agricultural Policy (them there farm subsidies) – which still absorb a large chunk of EU spending. It’s based on a calculation which is very roughly two thirds of the difference between the UK’s contribution and what it receives back from the EU budget. The French don’t like it. Bof.

What else? We’re not in the euro, and we never have to be. We’re not in the Schengen* passport-free travel zone. While other countries can be fined for not complying with certain aspects of the stability and growth pact, we can’t. So basically, we get as close as any country to having its cake and eating it. Still, as EU legislation has expanded over the last four decades, we have had to apply an every-growing menu of laws.

Is that how it’s seen in Brussels? Put it this way. If the EU is a birthday party, we’re not asking for more cake from a position of being sat in the corner eating stale twiglets. We’ve eaten a massive pile of cake, nibbled the icing on France’s, and now we’re asking for more. And we don’t know what sort of cake we actually want, and we won’t say until after the next game of musical chairs.

Mmm, cake. Nom nom nom. The other guests still want us to stay. We’re not the only ones with a desire for reform. But we are the only ones saying we’ll leave if we don’t get what we want – and in life as at children’s birthday parties, threatening to take your toys and go home doesn’t make one tremendously popular.

Alright, let’s play nicely and renegotiate. OK, but be aware we’re talking about a renegotiation of rules affecting 28 countries, at a time of political turmoil, economic uncertainty and global instability. And there’s only a certain amount that can be achieved without changing the basic EU treaty law. And that, to use a technical term from diplomatic circles, is a massive ball-ache. Those in favour of the government’s approach say change has been talked about for a long time and the threat of leaving is the only way to jolt them into action.

That’s not what I heard. It’s understandable. At the moment, the EU is easily used as a “dog ate my homework” style excuse by British politicians for anything unpopular. As an aside, the education system barely explains British politics, let alone how the EU works, which would help.

LOL remember general studies A-level!!! Who does? As explained last week, British civil servants, MEPs and diplomats can continue to reform the EU... from within. That’s how we got so much cake in the first place.

Enough with the cake. OK. Everyone knows it’s serious: the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, said he will “personally will take on the concerns voiced by the UK… no reasonable person can imagine the EU without the UK”, and various world leaders have urged us to stay in. Other EU leaders have made encouraging noises about flexibility – but not to the extent they end the free movement of goods, services, capital and people.

Well, look, all this depends on Dave and the election. Boris for PM! Boris knows a lot more about Europe than he lets on with his mop-haired buffoon act. His father worked for the commission, he went to the European School, and he was previously a reporter in Brussels. He says the Commission is expansionist, and that if that could be fixed, it would make most sense to stay in.

He’s probably just thinking about London. That’s kind of his job. According to CityUK, which lobbies for the banking industry, the EU is the biggest single market for UK exports of financial services, generating a trade surplus of £15.2bn in 2012 – that’s a lot of cash. The Lord Mayor of London (the fancy hat one, not Boris) has said if Britain leaves the EU a lot of banks could leave London.

I hate bankers.  OK, think about all the Minis made in Swindon and the Nissans from Sunderland... who buys them? Half of UK vehicle exports are to EU consumers and the sector employs over 700,000 people, according to a KPMG report for the industry. If we left the EU, there’d likely be an tarrif on exporting those cars to Europe. The report concludes that “continued EU membership is vital to this £60 billion industry and its long-term prosperity.”

I hate cars. Fine. Next week, we’ll talk about wine, cheese and cheap flights.

*Named after the village in Luxembourg where the agreement was signed.

 

Frances Robinson has been covering the EU since 2006. Previously a staffer at the Wall Street Journal, she returned to the UK after a decade abroad to talk and write about the UK-EU relationship. 

Photo: Getty
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No, the battle in Momentum isn't about young against old

Jon Lansman and his allies' narrative doesn't add up, argues Rida Vaquas.

If you examined the recent coverage around Momentum, you’d be forgiven for thinking that it was headed towards an acrimonious split, judging by the vitriol, paranoia and lurid accusations that have appeared online in the last couple days. You’d also be forgiven for thinking that this divide was between a Trotskyist old guard who can’t countenance new ways of working, and hip youngsters who are filled with idealism and better at memes. You might then be incredibly bemused as to how the Trotskyists Momentum was keen to deny existed over the summer have suddenly come to the brink of launching a ‘takeover bid’.

However these accounts, whatever intentions or frustrations that they are driven by, largely misrepresent the dispute within Momentum and what transpired at the now infamous National Committee meeting last Saturday.

In the first instance, ‘young people’ are by no means universally on the side of e-democracy as embodied by the MxV online platform, nor did all young people at the National Committee vote for Jon Lansman’s proposal which would make this platform the essential method of deciding Momentum policy.

Being on National Committee as the representative from Red Labour, I spoke in favour of a conference with delegates from local groups, believing this is the best way to ensure local groups are at the forefront of what we do as an organisation.

I was nineteen years old then. Unfortunately speaking and voting in favour of a delegates based conference has morphed me into a Trotskyist sectarian from the 1970s, aging me by over thirty years.

Moreover I was by no means the only young person in favour of this, Josie Runswick (LGBT+ representative) and the Scottish delegates Martyn Cook and Lauren Gilmour are all under thirty and all voted for a delegates based national conference. I say this to highlight that the caricature of an intergenerational war between the old and the new is precisely that: a caricature bearing little relation to a much more nuanced reality.

Furthermore, I believe that many people who voted for a delegates-based conference would be rather astounded to find themselves described as Trotskyists. I do not deny that there are Trotskyists on National Committee, nor do I deny that Trotskyists supported a delegates-based conference – that is an open position of theirs. What I do object is a characterisation of the 32 delegates who voted for a delegates-based conference as Trotskyists, or at best, gullible fools who’ve been taken in.  Many regional delegates were mandated by the people to whom they are accountable to support a national conference based on this democratic model, following broad and free political discussion within their regions. As thrilling as it might be to fantasise about a sinister plot driven by the shadow emperors of the hard Left against all that it is sensible and moderate in Momentum, the truth is rather more mundane. Jon Lansman and his supporters failed to convince people in local groups of the merits of his e-democracy proposal, and as a result lost the vote.

I do not think that Momentum is doomed to fail on account of the particular details of our internal structures, providing that there is democracy, accountability and grassroots participation embedded into it. I do not think Momentum is doomed to fail the moment Jon Lansman, however much respect I have for him, loses a vote. I do not even think Momentum is doomed to fail if Trotskyists are involved, or even win sometimes, if they make their case openly and convince others of their ideas in the structures available.

The existential threat that Momentum faces is none of these things, it is the propagation of a toxic and polarised political culture based on cliques and personal loyalties as opposed to genuine political discussion on how we can transform labour movement and transform society. It is a political culture in which those opposed to you in the organisation are treated as alien invaders hell-bent on destroying it, even when we’ve worked together to build it up, and we worked together before the Corbyn moment even happened. It is a political culture where members drag others through the mud, using the rhetoric of the Right that’s been used to attack all of us, on social and national media and lend their tacit support to witch hunts that saw thousands of Labour members and supporters barred from voting in the summer. It is ultimately a political culture in which our trust in each other and capacity to work together on is irreparably eroded.

We have a tremendous task facing us: to fight for a socialist alternative in a global context where far right populism is rapidly accruing victories; to fight for the Labour Party to win governmental power; to fight for a world in which working class people have the power to collectively change their lives and change the societies we live in. In short: there is an urgent need to get our act together. This will not be accomplished by sniping about ‘saboteurs’ but by debating the kind of politics we want clearly and openly, and then coming together to campaign from a grassroots level upwards.

Rida Vaquas is Red Labour Representative on Momentum National Committee.