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  • Author: MINA ZINGARIELLO
  • Language: English

On 19 February 2016, the Conservative UK Prime Minister David Cameron marched to Brussels and stroke a deal to negotiate further autonomy for his country from the European Union. The trigger for the deal was the upcoming British Referendum on the UK permanence in the Union. Cameron’s political campaign during the general elections in May 2015 was clear: the UK had no business in staying in an over-powerful European Union, and needed to gain more independent decision making power, particularly around the sensitive issues of intra EU freedom of movement. Needless to say, the campaign was successful. David Cameron won the election with 331 seats against the Labour Candidate Ed Miliband, annihilated his allied in the previous coalition the Liberal Democrat Party, and conquered a vast majority in the Parliament.

This happened few months after Cameron brought home another political victory: the Scottish Referendum on 18 September 2014 that sanctioned Scottish permanence in the United Kingdom in exchange for more regional devolution. The defeat of the “Yes” campaign, the one in favour of Scottish independence from the UK, resulted in Alex Salmond resigning from his leadership position of the Scottish National Party (SNP). This opened the way to the “Nicola Sturgeon era”, first woman to ever lead the party, convinced pro-European Union, pro-equality and diversity, and progressive leader of a party that states «Our vision is of a prosperous country where everyone gets the chance to fulfil their potential. We want a fair society where no-one is left behind».

During the May 2015 general elections, SNP crushed the Labour and the Lib Dem parties in Scotland winning with 56 seats over 59. One of the main pre-conditions for this victory was the lack of clear leadership in the Labour Party, and the certainty that Scotland is progressive, and that if there was ever going to be a choice to be made between the UK and the UE, Scottish people would choose the latter.

Nicola Sturgeon is naturally one of the most sceptical UK leaders towards the UE deal negotiated by Cameron. The deal includes the following:

  • a limitation to the ability for EU citizens living in the UK to enjoy in-work benefits for four years under “exceptional levels of migration”;
  • child benefits for EU nationals’ children living overseas will only be paid at the rate of the original country;
  • an explicit amendment to the Treaties to clarify that the UK does not want to go towards and “ever closer Union”;
  • the ability for the UK to set in motion a not-better clarified process to safeguard London and prevent UK firms from being discriminated because not based in the Eurozone.

There are two key political aspects in this deal. On one hand, a business principle of economic protection is established against commercial discrimination for companies based in London. On the other side, for the first time a de facto discrimination among EU nationals is clearly theorised, articulated, negotiated and accepted. This is in direct and open contrast of the spirit of the Treaties, people’s effective freedom of movement and equal treatment, and the jurisprudence of the European Court of Justice.

Provided that the Government has refused to release the official data, independent research have shown there actually are more UK citizens claiming unemployment benefits in other EU Member States (predominantly Ireland, Germany and France) than EU citizens claiming benefits in the UK. So the issue of the benefits is hardly an economic one, but it is rather a stand against migrants enjoying the same rights as UK citizens. Hence, it becomes a social or moral matter that should affect the system of values at the basis of any socialist party. However, in the UK, the Labour Party of Jeremy Corbyn – who has based his campaign on “Justice, freedom, solidarity and equality for all” – has not taken a clear position against Brexit. On the other hand, the conservatives and the financial industry of the City have been campaigning for the “No” ever since the country has started talking about the issue.

What is the reason for this apparent reversal of roles?

In a post-Thatcher context, where labour laws are extremely flexible and fragmented, and Trade Union representation has been left powerless (with the exception of the Public Transport sector), companies in the UK thrive on UE migrants. Entire sectors and lobbies are nurtured through the EU workforce, particularly the retail and hospitality industries. EU citizens coming to London and willing to accept undignified labour and housing deals while seeking better opportunities are effectively the main obstacle to an open and fair conversation on living standards in the capital. Low paying jobs, which are jobs whose salaries force people to live in poverty, have been consistently increasing in the UK in the last several years, with 21% of the jobs in London in 2014 being low paying. It is not surprising that the precisely retail and hospitality make up for almost half of it, and 40% of people working in the capital with low paid rates belong to the age group of 21-24 years.

Therefore, it is obvious that the Labour Party under Corbyn’s leadership has been hesitant in being vocally in favour of the “remain” campaign for the BREXIT; as opposed to business companies and the Finance sector that has been threatening the Government to leave the UK would the country exit the EU. In a recent poll circulated by the Times in February 2016, 38% of the sample consulted supported leaving the EU, against 37% declaring to stay, and 25% undecided.

The two sides of the campaign are challenging each other with economic data: each side is trying to calculate the economic loss in staying, or leaving. This purely commercial approach is pointless as no country has ever left the EU, and therefore any financial consideration can only be a guesstimate, and increase people’s confusion around the issue. But most importantly, this approach is a sad symptom of a lack of vision, hope and analytical skills. There is much to be gained for the UK from staying in an EU able to crystallise and expand social norms which are standard practice in other European countries. Real progressive parties should not (or not only) engage in mere economic calculations without taking into consideration the social potential and costs of their choices. The winning argument that should be used to justify the permanence in the EU should clearly articulate why the European Union is benefiting the working class, rather than hurting it, with real life examples for workers’ rights around paid holidays, parental leave and the gender agenda to mention only but few themes. Of course, this would require a much more harmonic and organised cooperation among parties member of the European Socialist Party. A common agenda and strategy to support the fights of left parties in each country, and amplify their victories.

The Labour Party, with the help of the European Socialist Party, needs to change the narrative around BREXIT to make it relevant to people’s needs and fears and less dependent on economic calculations. BREXIT needs to become a social battle demanding not just jobs, but better jobs, with more rights, and more dignity grounded on the values of equality and solidarity. In the UK Corbyn has overwhelmingly won the Labour Leadership with this manifesto, and now it is time to explain how the European Union can help him achieving it.