Progressive Futures

The Brexiteers’ vision of global Britain has no room for a more social Europe

21 November 2017

Following the first EU Social Summit in 20 years, a post-Brexit Britain will have to keep up with progressive change to maintain privileged access to EU markets – but is that something the hard Brexiteers can accept?

Roger Liddle

Last Friday’s Stockholm Social Summit would have passed almost unnoticed in Britain, had not Mrs May made the journey there to lobby those prime ministers she could buttonhole with the aim of securing faster progress in what matters to her political survival – a breakthrough in the Brexit talks. In different circumstances one doubts whether a Conservative Prime Minister would have bothered to make the journey at all.

‘Social Europe’ has, for the best part of three decades, been toxic in the Conservative party. It was, after all, Jacques Delors’ trip to the TUC Congress in 1988 where he persuaded the British trade union movement of the benefits of ‘social Europe’ that so enraged Margaret Thatcher. It led directly to the inclusion of the infamous line to her Bruges speech a few weeks later that, ‘we have not defeated socialism at home only to have Europe reimpose it through the back door’. In Conservative circles in Britain, European social legislation, and in particular the Working Time Directive, became synonymous with unwanted interference from Brussels, bureaucratic burdens on business and the incubus of EU regulation from which Brexit would allow the country to break free.

As an inevitable consequence of her trek to Stockholm, Mrs May has signed up to what (in euro-parlance) is described as the ‘interinstitutional proclamation of the European pillar of social rights’. Britain, still a full member of the European Council has endorsed this. Of course, if challenged, Mrs May might say it is of little practical significance to the UK. As Clause 13 of the proclamation puts it, in drafting of masterful ambiguity: “A stronger focus on employment and social performance is particularly important to increase resilience and deepen the Economic and Monetary Union. For this reason the European Pillar of Social Rights is notably conceived for the euro area but it is addressed to all Member States.” And if challenged on the meaning of that statement, Mrs May could add, Britain is leaving the EU: so it is of little relevance to us.

The interesting question is whether in her own mind, had it not been for Brexit, Mrs May would dismiss the Proclamation as an irrelevance. She thinks of herself as a ‘One Nation Conservative. Her manifesto for the June general election spoke of tackling the ‘burning injustices’ in British society. She has been insistent (though when one considers what the supporters of hard Brexit in truth believe, the statement appears of questionable deliverability) that Brexit will not be used to diminish workers’ rights. She senses, I suspect, that the ‘social dimension’ of the market economy has been badly neglected in the decade since the financial crisis and that something must be done. Her problem is that she doesn’t know precisely what – and even if she did, she has no political authority left to impose it on her party.

The reasons why the continental political elite are showing more interest in social Europe are similar. The last ten years have been a searing experience for the euro area. The European social model was supposed to promote convergence. It did, with impressive success, for most of the time from the 1950s to 2008. But since the financial crisis and then the eurocrisis, we have seen massive and growing divergence. The social impact of the eurocrisis in Greece, Italy, Portugal and Spain has been catastrophic.

The remarkable thing is that these countries have stuck with the euro, despite everything – a demonstration that British eurosceptics should all take to heart, of the continuing power of the European ideal, along with realising an ‘exit’ would only make things a lot worse. On the other hand in northern Europe rightwing populism has gained strength, often fired up by the bailouts necessary to keep southern Europe afloat. Rhetoric about the need for a more social Europe will not solve this problem: without reforms to eurozone governance, the underlying sources of social tension will remain.

But that is not to diminish the importance of the social pillar. It highlights the centrality of a social vision in the European treaties and charter of fundamental rights: the EU is far more than a ‘market’ and it always has been. It sets standards and tests against which future political performance will be judged. It will lead to a new momentum for the modernisation of the EU social ‘acquis’.

This new legislative programme is in areas to which progressives in Britain ought to be sympathetic. For example a major new directive is proposed on work-life balance: creating space for decent family and private life is surely one of the major challenges of our time. Additionally, the pillar’s proposed written statement directive is the foundation of basic rights and safeguards for all types of workers in the so-called ‘gig’ economy, in keeping with the recommendations of the Taylor Review.

What’s more, we now have the real prospect that a programme of new social legislation might get through the council of ministers. The recent agreement on the posted workers directive was highly significant, though again largely ignored in the UK, despite its relevance to necessary reforms of ‘free movement’. The directive only obtained the qualified majority needed to pass, because President Macron of France put a huge effort into persuading some central and eastern European member states, who had previously been hostile to what they have traditionally regarded as ‘protectionist’ social legislation, to back the reforms. It is also an irony that Brexit Britain, which is now so desperate to secure a good deal from its EU partners, can no longer play the back marker in the council of ministers on progressive social change. Once we have left the EU, social Europe is an area where integration may well advance more quickly.

But though Britain outside the EU will no longer be able to block the development of the ‘social acquis’, it will still be forced to pay close attention to it. If the UK is to retain any form of privileged access to European markets, it will have to agree to the principle of maintaining ‘regulatory convergence’ with the EU. That means the avoidance of that which those on the continent refer to as ‘social dumping’. The facts of realpolitik are that Brexit Britain will come under major political pressure to adopt whatever advances are made in EU social rights – with the potential threat of trade sanctions if we refuse.

Regulatory convergence poses no problem in principle for Labour. But for the Conservatives it is a huge issue. It is why the hard Brexiteers want to break free of the EU altogether even if it means a very minimal free trade agreement with the EU, which would be gravely damaging to the British economy.

For make no mistake: the Brexiteers’ vision of ‘global Britain’ has no space for a more social Europe. That is why fighting a hard Brexit is existential for those of us who believe in a progressive Britain.

Image credit: Alexandros Michailidis / Shutterstock.com