Friday, 19 March 1999


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 19 March 1999

Last week was a bad one for anyone on the pro-European left in Britain. Oskar Lafontaine, the German Finance Minister who resigned last Thursday, was by no means a straightforward hero. Sometimes, his lack of tact was exasperatingly counterproductive. In particular, his frequent calls for the European Central Bank to reduce its interest rates had the effect of stiffening the ECB's resolve not to cut rates lest it be seen to be bowing to political pressure. Sometimes, too, he was strangely obsessive. He insistently demanded exchange-rate target zones for the world's major currencies even though the world's central bankers already informally operate precisely such a system.

But he was a powerful voice in favour of the expansion of demand by the European Union that the Continent so desperately needs if it is to pull itself out of the recession in which it has wallowed for most of the nineties. Contrary to what some of the more obnoxious "New" Labourites contend, his demise does not mean that European social democracy will now embrace Tony Blair's unalloyed enthusiasm for toadying to big business with policies of deregulation and fiscal conservatism. The momentum of the swing toward Eurokeynesianism among Continental socialist parties is too great for that – as Blair himself discovered when his speech in praise of the American economy was received so coolly by the Milan congress of the Party of European Socialists earlier this month.

All the same, without Lafontaine it is going to be more difficult to set up the institutions and introduce the policies that Europe needs if it is not to be crucified by the combination of rampant globalisation and the ECB's monetary conservatism. His departure is a blow for everyone concerned with the only modernising project of the Left worth describing as such – that of weaning European social democracy off the neo-liberalism it adopted in the eighties and creating a democratic federal Europe capable of challenging the hegemony of globally mobile capital. The glee with which New Labour greeted Lafontaine's resignation was little short of nauseating.


By contrast, this week has provided the pro-European left with the best excuse this year for cracking open the champagne – Monday's spectacular resignation of all 20 European Commissioners after the publication of a report damning the EU executive for incompetence, indolence and nepotism.

The reason for celebrating is simple: the resignation is a stunning victory for what should eventually become Europe's federal legislative assembly, the European Parliament, and for the principle of democracy. The report that criticised the Commission was produced by an inquiry set up by the Parliament following the suspension of an official for leaking allegations of corruption. And it was on the insistence of the Parliament in session, with the Party of European Socialists taking the lead, that the Commissioners resigned.

It was an extraordinary assertion of the Parliament's powers. Never before had it managed to force the resignation of one of the unelected Commissioners – let alone all of them. It is a long time since the Parliament could easily be dismissed as a powerless talking shop: anyone who does so now is an idiot.

The key question now is what role the Parliament plays in choosing a new Commission. The governments of the EU, including the British, are desperate to keep appointment of Commissioners to themselves, and most would be happy to reappoint most of the Commissioners who have resigned, with Commission President Jacques Santer, Edith Cresson and perhaps one or two others offered up for sacrifice.

Such a turnout would be a disgrace. On one hand, the inquiry report makes it clear that the Commissioners as a whole should be held responsible for the shambolic state of their organisation. Replacing only one or two of them would be tantamount to declaring to the public that EU Governments condone incompetence, indolence and nepotism.

On the other hand, for the governments simply to reappoint most of the outgoing Commissioners without consulting the Parliament would be a step backwards as far as democratic accountability is concerned. At the very least, the Parliament should be given the power to veto individual Commissioners – and should threaten to vote no confidence in the whole Commission if it is not.

It would be even better, however, if the Parliament were able to propose candidates, and better still if it elected the Commission itself. There could be no better way of restoring the legitimacy of the Commission than for a new Commission to be chosen by the directly -and freshly – elected representatives of the people after the June European election. Of course, the chance of that happening is extremely small. But dreaming of democracy never did any harm, did it?

Friday, 5 March 1999


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 5 March 1999

The campaign for the referendum on British membership of the European single currency has at long last begun in earnest.

Last week, Tony Blair gave his clearest signal yet that he was preparing to take a leading role in the "yes" campaign. This week saw the launch of Lord Owen's New Europe group, which promises to campaign from a "pro-European" perspective against Britain becoming part of the euro-zone.

Until Blair's announcement of the government's plans for preparing for the euro – carefully orchestrated with the support of Kenneth Clarke and Michael Heseltine to maximise embarrassment to William Hague – it was by no means obvious that the Prime Minister was ready to risk the wrath of the Tory press barons by coming out explicitly for British participation in the single currency. Of course, he hasn't officially changed government policy and could still revert to a position of "wait-and-see". But the chances of that now appear very slim.

Similarly, until Owen went public with his organisation, backed by Lords Healey and Prior, it was not apparent that the antis would have any serious support from the political centre. Owen, Healey and Prior are heavyweights from the past. But their intervention has undoubtedly changed things. The "no" camp now appears significantly more substantial than did the uneasy alliance between, on one hand, Labour opponents of the single currency (mainly on the left) and, on the other, the Tories and the right-wing press on the other.

As Hugo Young warned in the Guardian this week, however, it would be a mistake to assume that the final battle lines have been drawn.

Young's argument was that the Tories' divisions over the euro and the differences between the Owen group and the Tory Eurosceptics could easily cause the "no" camp to implode – and it's difficult to disagree with that. What intrigues me, however, is the likely impact that the euro referendum campaign will have on the left.

From the early sixties to the mid-eighties, it was almost obligatory for anyone on the left, inside or outside the Labour Party, to be opposed to British membership of what was then called the Common Market. With few exceptions, left-wingers believed that it was a capitalist club with rules that made it impossible for member states to introduce socialist economic policies. Many denounced it as an instrument of the cold war – not least because nearly all the Labour people who backed British membership were enthusiastic Atlanticists who supported American foreign policy at every turn.

It was the left, with Tribune in the vanguard, that led the "no" campaign in the 1975 referendum on British membership. The inclusion of the promise of withdrawal in Labour's 1983 manifesto was one of the left's greatest triumphs of the early eighties.

Then, however, the left's anti-Europe consensus evaporated – almost overnight. There were only intermittent squeals of protest when Neil Kinnock abandoned the policy of withdrawal soon after becoming Labour leader, and only the mildest dissent as the party embraced more and more of the European "project" during the late eighties and early nineties. Today, the anti-European left consists largely of sad old men reliving the heroic defeats of their middle age.

The reasons for the collapse of left anti-Europeanism were simple. After the debacle of Francois Mitterrand's attempt to reflate the French economy in 1981-83, much of the British left became convinced that control of multinational capital demanded Europe-wide co-ordination of economic policy. With the arrival of Jacques Delors as President of the European Commission, talking of common European social standards as a complement to the single European market, the unions were converted to the European cause. And then came Delors's plan for a pan-European Keynesian plan to conquer unemployment through public works.

That, of course, was a long time ago – and in the meantime Tony Blair became Labour leader. Ever since then, there has been a truce between the party's few remaining left Eurosceptics and the majority of left Euro-enthusiasts, based on a justified conviction that Blair is a shamelessly populist authoritarian and a sucker for the worst excesses of Big Mac capitalism.

So far, the truce has held, but my hunch is that the EMU referendum will destroy it. Already we can see the first signs of renewed hostilities. On the left Eurosceptic side, Tribune has signed up with the 1950s-style Stalinists of the Morning Star for what appears to be a kamikaze raid. For the left Euro-enthusiasts, Ken Livingstone has declared that he regrets that the Blair government rejected the option of early entry into EMU.

So before too long, I reckon, we'll all fall out. Which will be sad – but needs must.

Monday, 1 March 1999


Paul Anderson, Red Pepper, March 1999

With only three months to go before Britain's first proportional representation elections for the European Parliament on 10 June, Labour has barely started planning its campaign – leading to mounting anger among candidates and activists.

'It's almost as if the leadership wants the party to be humiliated,' said one would-be MEP. 'Millbank has put no effort at all into the Euro-elections. All it's worried about is the local elections and Scotland and Wales in May.'

At Labour's joint European and local government conference in Manchester last month, Tony Blair was warmly received when he called for a vigorous party effort in all this spring's elections. But the show of enthusiasm masked widespread pessimism about Labour's prospects in the European elections.

The adoption of PR means that Labour will inevitably lose European seats. Even with 50 per cent of the vote, it will take 20 fewer seats than the 62 it won under first-past-the-post in 1994.

What is causing activists most concern, however, is the apparent expectation of Labour headquarters that the Euro-election campaign in England will be able to 'piggy back' on the party's efforts for the local elections a month earlier.

In order to minimise its losses of council seats, Labour is adopting a version of the 'key seats' strategy that won it such a handsome Commons majority in May 1997. It is concentrating on retaining the support of affluent former-Tory voters in marginal seats and ignoring its core working-class support in safe seats.

The problem is that the Euro-elections will take place under PR – and every vote counts. Labour could do badly if it fails to mobilise its core support, particularly if, as expected, turnout is low.

Labour's Euro-campaign is particularly poorly prepared in London, where there are no local elections this year. One reason is that the campaign in the capital has been made the responsibility of Pauline Green MEP, who plays a major role in the European Parliament as leader of the Party of European Socialists and is unwilling to delegate the campaign to anyone else.

Another reason is the preoccupation of the London Labour leadership with preventing Ken Livingstone becoming Labour's candidate for mayor of London. In the words of a senior party figure, 'Charles Square [the London Labour headquarters] is working full time on the "stop Ken" campaign. They've not even done the basics on the Euro-campaign. I'd not be at all surprised if we lose a seat we could have won to the Greens.'