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Jeremy Corbyn describes the European Union as he would like it to be, not as it is.

IT’S hardly surprising that 50% of Labour voters, according to one survey, don’t know the Labour Party’s position on the EU referendum. Most of the Labour leadership are at best reluctant Europeans. Jeremy Corbyn is a left winger who was vehemently anti-European in the past on the grounds that the EU is a capitalist club. He has come round to Europe largely out of electoral expediency.

Many Labour MPs now seem to be pro-Europe principally because the Tories seem to be vehemently opposed to it. But it is a long time since Labour has actually asked itself why it supports the European Union today when many of its leading figures didn’t before. Mr Corbyn attempted to answer that question today in his first significant speech on Europe.

Supporting the new official pro-EU Stronger In, Mr Corbyn stressed the achievements of the union: peace in Europe, increased prosperity, human rights, free movement, the Social Chapter. Like the former Labour leadership non-contender, David Miliband, Mr Corbyn fears a chaotic disintegration of Europe.  “By working together across our continent” said the Labour leader, “we can develop our economies protect social and human rights, tackle climate change and clamp down on tax dodgers”.   Well, perhaps.  But his “socialist” vision of Europe bore little relation to what is really out there.

Europe is in a very bad way, and the fact that some Tories seem to regard the EU – bizarrely – as a socialist enterprise does not mean that it is working for the people of Europe. It manifestly is not. Europe is in the midst of a depression, a wholly avoidable depression, which is having a devastating impact on ordinary people.

Both Europe and the US were hit equally by the 2008 financial crash and the recession that followed it. But since 2010 the US has grown by 27% while the European Union has flatlined. This is almost entirely down to a failure of the eurozone to apply an elementary Keynesian stimulus to European growth. Unemployment across Europe is consequently running at twice the level of America. Youth unemployment is over 40% in a number of EU states and has condemned a generation of young people to an uncertain future as a rootless and insecure “precariat”.

The sovereign debt crisis is blamed for this, and the fecklessness of the Greeks, but there was no reason why the specific problems of individual states in the eurozone should have prevented concerted action. Quite the reverse. The only way out of the eurozone crisis is through growth. But the EU is ideologically committed to free-market orthodoxy and has repeated the mistakes made by US governments after the 1929 crash. It has imposed self-defeating austerity which has condemned countries such as Greece and Portugal to a debt spiral.

It pains me to say it, but the austerity imposed by the Troika – IMF, EU and European Central Bank – makes Chancellor George Osborne look like a socialist. At least he abandoned his unrealistic cuts after 2012. They may not be good jobs that the Tories have created in Britain, but at least they are jobs. The EU continues to impose debt deflation when it knows – yes, knows – that the debts will only get worse. Only a governing authority divorced from democratic legitimacy, and remote from ordinary voter’s lives, could get away with imposing depression economics in the 21st century.

Mr Corbyn will no doubt concede that the EU has a “democratic deficit”. He wants a reformed people’s Europe, as advocated by the former Greek finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, who has been in discussion with the Labour leader, which is fine, though there seems little prospect of this actually happening.

There already is a democracy movement, of course. It’s called the European parliament and it has been elected by the people of Europe for more than 40 years, but it has failed to exercise restraint on the Commission, still less the inter-governmental Council of Ministers. The EU parliament has no significant powers and only the unelected Commission can promote legislation. In the absence of democratic scrutiny, the Commission has become the plaything of lobbyists and NGOs who infest the structures of the EU. There are almost as many lobbyists working in Brussels as there are bureaucrats.

Those civil servants in the European Commission live a rarefied life. Their €300,000 salaries are inexplicably taxed at a specially reduced rate and come with a galaxy of benefits and bonuses that would have made the most avaricious Westminster MP green with envy even before the expenses scandal of 2010. There is still endemic corruption in the EU. But the main problem is remoteness from the people it is supposed to serve.

The much-vaunted Social Europe is, by common agreement, a self-serving myth. The Social Chapter to the Maastricht Treaty – which Britain opted out of – only covered basic issues like equal pay and paternity leave. Britain withdrew from the working time directive. There remain numerous EU-related committees about “social inclusion”, but as we have seen in Greece the reality is social exclusion on a societal scale. The reforming EU president, Jacques deLors, in the 1990s tried to counterpose the “European social model” to the “Anglo Saxon capitalism” of America but the distinction is otiose.

Anyway, the Social Chapter excluded trades union rights because the founders of the European community regarded collective action by trades unions as contrary to the free market. Collective bargaining is in long term decline across Europe. We don’t often identify Margaret Thatcher with Europe but the Single European Act which created the single market was devised by her economic advisers.

The object was to lower wage costs across Europe by restricting domestic labour laws and drafting in low paid workers from Eastern Europe. Oh, yes – it was the Tories (and later Tony Blair) who urged the rapid “widening” of Europe, brushing aside the reservations of countries such as France and Germany at the social consequences of this reserve army of low paid labour.

As the Labour MP Kate Hooey has argued, the logical left wing position should not be in favour of an EU pitted against organised labour and its achievements. The former Labour foreign secretary, Lord Owen, even says that the privatisation of the National Health Service could become irreversible if Britain remains in Europe. Lord Owen claims the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership TTIP between the US and EU could subject to legal challenge any moves to reverse private involvement in health. As for Scotland’s non-privatised NHS – who knows. The TTIP negotiations are all secret.

Even the Schengen zone of free movement, which symbolised the hopes of my generation for a new borderless Europe, is being dismantled in the face of the refugee crisis. The only really convincing argument for remaining in Europe is that Brexit could spark a chaotic disintegration of Europe into acrimonious nationalism. With the panic over terrorism, the conflict in Ukraine and the threat of fascism in countries such as Greece, leaving the EU now looks irresponsible.

As Mr Varoufakis argues, having come this far, the states of Europe have to hang together or hang separately. But let’s not fool ourselves: the European Union as it presently exists is a democratic abomination and an economic disaster area and no Labour leader should be saying otherwise.

About @iainmacwhirter

I'm a columnist for the Herald. Author of "Road to Referendum" and "Disunited Kingdom". Was a BBC TV and radio presenter for 25 years - "Westminster Live" and "Holyrood Live" mainly. Spent time as columnist for The Observer, Guardian, New Statesman. Former Rector of Edinburgh University. Live in Edinburgh and spend a lot of time in the French Pyrenees. Will that do?


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