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The Euro has become a prison. There needs to be a way out

I've long opposed the single currency for Britain. But a middle way has to be found between leaving the European Union and being trapped by the single currency, and not just for the UK, argues Molly Scott Cato.

Eurosceptics will no doubt seek to capitalise on the misfortunes of the Greek people to further their own Brexit agenda. Indeed, it would be somewhat surprising if the Greek crisis and the way it has been handled by European leaders and institutions had not sown doubts in people’s minds. But as we enter the process of debating our place within the continent, and deciding whether this will include our membership of the European Union, it is important to draw a clear distinction between the European Union and the European currency of the Eurozone.

I must confess that the Eurozone is the issue where I have felt most isolated from other members of the Green group in the European Parliament. My colleagues are prepared to hear the serious reservations I have about the viability of a single currency, but do not sympathise with them. This in spite of the fact that nine other EU members have made the same decision as the UK, including Poland, Sweden, Denmark and the Czech Republic. By doing so, I believe they have also kept hold of vitally important economic powers.  

Perhaps we have forgotten just what a live issue the Euro was in the UK until relatively recently. Labour and the Liberal Democrats were keen for us to join the single currency. That we did not is, I think, credit to Jimmy Goldsmith, who poured money into a single-issue party to prevent this from happening. In 1997 the party stood candidates in every UK constituency to force this sole issue into the political debate and gave the Tories the courage to stand against the single currency.

 At that time I represented the UK on the steering group of the No Euro campaign. As Greens we broadened the campaign's base and provided political cover for the Little Englanders and their uncomfortable left wing allies.

I was also involved in the publication of a collection of essays that reflected a progressive case against the Euro. This outlined the extreme stretch of solidarity required by a functioning single currency area as well as critiquing the lack of democratic control over Eurozone institutions. It was a left wing argument for the preservation of national sovereignty, and for linking control of currency to where we vote, to match similar concerns on the political right.

Studying as I was for a PhD on employment policy at the time, I was party to the near unanimity of UK economists on the issue. It was a fairly easy question theoretically: with such a diverse range of economies requiring such wildly different interest rates, it was nearly impossible to conceive of the Eurozone as a single currency area. The success of the currency was always going to depend on the willingness of countries with more successful economies being prepared to transfer wealth to the weaker economies. A generation of European politicians decided to force that issue and the rise of Euroscepticism across the continent is the consequence. What was designed as a project to enhance solidarity and encourage federalism has done precisely the reverse.

Greece chose the loss of sovereignty that comes with joining a single currency. That has led to the appalling situation it faces today of losing control of its economic policy and its national assets, just as Portugal, Spain and Ireland did in their turn. But we should not allow the siren song of the anti-Europeans to blind us to the fact that it was the Euro and not the EU that gave the financiers this power. We do not face any similar loss of control precisely because we rejected the Euro and its flawed design.

Ever closer union is the logic of the European project and of the single currency area. This forced Union, brought about by the design of the Euro, is now undermining the whole EU. Those countries that are part of the single currency area will inevitably develop political and democratic institutions to guide how their currency is governed. Indeed, it is an urgent necessity that they do so. But there must also be a way out for countries for whom the Euro is now destructive and a way forward for countries that choose not to join but still want to be part of the European partnership.

 

Molly Scott Cato is Green MEP for the southwest of England, elected in May 2014. She has published widely, particularly on issues related to green economics. Molly was formerly Professor of Strategy and Sustainability at the University of Roehampton. She is Green Party parliamentary candidate for Bristol West.

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Most Leave voters back free movement – you just have to explain it

The argument during the referendum was never about free movement, but about immigration in general. 

This week, a piece of YouGov polling flipped on its head a widely held belief about the public’s attitude to immigration in the context of Brexit. The headline question was:

“In negotiating Britain’s departure from the European Union, do you think our government should offer EU citizens the right to travel, work, study or retire in Britain, in exchange for EU countries giving British citizens the same rights?”

Of the respondents, 69 per cent, including 60 per cent of Leave voters, responded that they should.

The poll has been overlooked by the bulk of the press, for whom it contradicts a very basic assumption – that the end of free movement, and the implicit acceptance of the narrative that high net migration had strained services and wages, was an electoral necessity for any party wanting to enter government. In fact, the apparent consensus against free movement after Brexit owes much less to deeply-rooted public opinion, and much more to the abject failure of progressives and mainstream Remain campaigners to make the case for it.

“If you’re explaining, you’re losing,” goes the old maxim of political communications. And this is accurate if you inhabit a world of tight, professional politics and your job is to capture votes using already widely understood concepts and a set of soundbites. So much of conventional political strategy consists of avoiding difficult or complex subjects, like free movement. This is especially the case if the exact meaning of the words requires defining. The job of radical politics is to change the terms of the debate entirely. That almost always means explaining things.

The strategy of Britain Stronger in Europe during the EU referendum campaign was a case in point. It honed down on its key message on economic stability, and refused to engage with the migration debate. As a result, the terms of the debate were set by the right. The argument during the referendum was never about free movement, but about immigration in general. If YouGov’s polling this week is correct, a majority of the British public support free movement – you just have to explain to them what it means.

That distinction between immigration and free movement was pivotal in the referendum. Immigration is a big, amorphous concept, and an influx of people, covering far more than Britain’s relationship with Europe. It makes an excellent scapegoat for the government’s failure to provide housing and public services. It has been so expertly blamed for bringing down wages that this has become received wisdom, despite almost nowhere being true. Free movement, on the other hand, can be understood more easily in terms of rights and security – not just for migrants in the UK, but for British citizens and workers.

As YouGov’s poll question explains, free movement would be a reciprocal agreement between post-Brexit Britain and the EU, enhancing UK citizens’ rights. We would get the right to live and work freely over an entire continent. Even if you might not want to exercise the right yourself, studying abroad might be something you want to preserve for your children. Even if you might not retire to France or Spain, you might well know someone who has, or wants to.

Perhaps most importantly, free movement makes British workers more secure. Migrants will come to the UK regardless of whether or not free movement agreements are in place; without the automatic right to work, many will be forced to work illegally and will become hyper-exploited. Removing migrants’ access to public funds and benefits – a policy which was in the Labour manifesto – would have a similar effect, forcing migrants to take any work they could find.

At present, Labour is in danger of falling into a similar trap to that of the main Remain campaigns in the EU referendum. Its manifesto policy was for an “economy first Brexit”, in other words, compromising on free movement but implying that it might be retained in order to get access to the single market. This fudge undeniably worked. In the longer term, though, basing your case for free movement entirely on what is good for the economy is exactly the mistake made by previous governments. Labour could grasp the nettle: argue from the left for free movement and for a raft of reforms that raise wages, build homes and make collective bargaining and trade unions stronger.

Making the case for free movement sounds like a more radical task than making the case for immigration more generally – and it is. But it is also more achievable, because continued free movement is a clear, viable policy that draws the debate away from controlling net migration and towards transforming the economy so that everyone prospers. Just as with the left’s prospects of electoral success in general, bold ideas will fare better than centrist fudges that give succour to the right’s narratives.