Controversial Free Trade Agreement bring EU ethics into the Spotlight

By Joshua Butt

On 1st August a new EU free trade agreement with Peru and Colombia to liberalise trade in agricultural, industrial and fisheries products came into force. It is the first of a wave of anticipated deals, many of which will include more Latin American states.

Free trade has always had a central role in the neo-liberal approach of the EU, and the increased ability for the European Parliament to negotiate and ratify trade agreements as a block is testament to the EU’s commitment to improving trade between Europe and the rest of the world.

The deal, thought to be worth around €250million in savings over the next decade, has not been met though with universal approval. Concerns have been raised by the Parliament and by workers unions over whether doing business with Columbia and Peru does not endanger another of the EU’s core dictums, a commitment to Human Rights.

Much of the controversy surrounds the issues of workers rights and conditions, which in Peru and Colombia, as in much of South America, fall far short of European expectations. Not only are conditions poor but trade unionists have been targeted with regular brutality, particularly in Colombia where right-wing groups have been responsible for the murder of many activists. According to the International Trade Unions Confederation 89 trade unionists were murdered between 2007 and 2009.

In response to the agreement Human Rights groups have reacted with anger, citing the agreement as an example of the EU’s prioritisation of economic aims over human rights.

The EU will feel that this free-trade agreement however does have a positive role to play in their mission to spread human rights and have made moves to incorporate these principle into the deal: human rights implications were thoroughly debated in the Parliament leading to the establishment of a supervisory group to oversee the implementation of labour rights that have been included within the treaty. Columbia and Peru do already have legislation in place with respect to human rights and as Ever Causado, Secretary General of Sintramienergetica union representing some 6,000 miners in the coal, gold and gas industries has said, “In our experience the state does not comply with the rules.”

However it may not be through the setting of new laws that the EU can have its greatest effect. As well as reiterating the basic principles of Human Rights, this treaty may give employers both means and motivation to incorporate labour rights into their mode of operation. The early indications are that the free-trade agreement is promoting a trade in luxury goods, where high margins may encourage manufacturers to show some concern for their workers conditions. It is certainly a different set of circumstances to previous trade agreements in the past that have been largely focused on the delivery of cheap commodities to the developed economies at super low prices.

And it’s not just the different economic outlook that indicates that there is reason to be hopeful. While free trade may not bring the levels of investment required to address all the social woes of countries such as Peru or Columbia, and will benefit primarily the wealthiest in these countries and those who control the nation’s industries, it will however mean more than ever that Peru and Columbia will do greater amounts of business with Europe compared with their South American neighbours. As a result labour conditions will have to feature much higher on the political agenda as the EU looks to avoid the embarrassment of being seen to profit from human rights abuses.

The need to impress international onlookers and European consumers may prove to provide exactly the incentive to improve conditions that national policy makers have not managed to encourage. As Ever Causado has said, using the law as a ‘stick’ has not worked as an approach, so maybe the EU’s ‘carrot’ of potential trade benefits will instead be a more effective platform for change.

Critics may still argue that trading with states where human rights is wrong, but isolation of states such as Columbia is surely not the answer.

By increasing the level of scrutiny of Peru and Columbia’s practices and debating them, as well as providing them with both means and motivation to change poor practice is precisely the way in which the EU can spread its human rights message. Time will tell whether the EU will resist the temptation of making easy money from trading with those who do not respect human rights, but with such intense focus on the issue of human rights abuses the signs are at least positive. This ‘soft’ approach, just like the money saved in trade deals, will not be the only answer to what is undoubtedly a complicated problem, but opening the conversation can only prove to be a positive development for the unionists and workers of Peru and Columbia.

No to referenda

By Alex Bryan

First the Conservatives, then Labour, now finally, it seems, the Liberal Democrats. Nick Clegg’s statement in PMQ’s on Wednesday that it is a matter of ‘when not if’ a referendum is held on Britain’s membership of the European Union signals the beginning of a three-party consensus that a referendum on Europe is necessary. Considering the age-old Europhilic tendencies of the party, this demonstrates how much support and influence UKIP now wield.

As well as the rise of UKIP, it also signals the rise of something else which the Lib Dems have been altogether more keen on; referenda. Since the ascension of New Labour in 1997, Britain has changed from being a country which had only had one referendum in its entire history to being one in which referenda are becoming an almost common phenomena. Though we have only had one national referendum since 1997 (on the Alternative Vote), the calls for a referendum on the EU and Scottish independence show that they are becoming a part of the national political fabric.

The attractions of calling for a referendum are, from the politicians perspective, clear. ‘Giving the people a vote’ will never be seen as an unpopular stance, and will almost certainly be lauded as ‘democratic’, whilst simultaneously casting anyone who dares to disagree as ‘undemocratic’ or elitist. This should be a worry for those concerned with the health of British politics. The fact that referenda are now seen as a plausible possibility on controversial issues means that politicians can manipulate political opinion in order to suit their political agenda hugely.

Take Europe for example; it is no coincidence that it is the Conservatives and UKIP who are most vocal in their support for a referendum, as it is they who have public opinion on their side. As Labour found out with the ill-fated North Yorkshire devolution referendums in 2004, a referendum lost is an embarrassment. Therefore politicians will only pressure for a referendum on an issue they know that they are winning on.

This is not a good thing. For one thing, issues such as EU membership are hugely complex and shadowed by conjecture and falsehoods. They are immensely important for the future of our nation. They are, essentially, exactly the kind of issues which we elect with politicians to deal with. We devolve some of our democratic powers to parliament and the government in the hope that they, as qualified, full-time politicians, will be able to conduct hearings and make policy on important issues better than we would.

Again, take the EU. This is a subject as controversial as it is possible to be. Proponents of referendums say that, come election day, the public education programme and campaigning preceding it will ensure that the public is informed enough to cast a ballot. But when it comes to the EU, very few people know the figures. Nigel Farage might bang on about membership fees but in reality the economic benefits or costs of EU membership are impossible to calculate. By the time election day comes round, the campaigning will simply have affirmed existing prejudices. On an issue as complex as EU membership, most people will not have the time or the information to do any research into the issue, and will cast their vote based on the statistics and opinions they read in the newspapers, the vast majority of which are anti-EU. It is not elitist to say that in the modern world, where democracy is seen as the state getting out of your way rather than direct participation in the political system, it is not elitist to say this: it is simply realistic.

More important than any individual bad decision however are the long-term implications of referendums on the public’s views on politicians. If politicians begin regularly abdicating the biggest decisions, then it will no longer be seen as important whether they can handle the big decisions, as they will be making fewer of them. A public which already views politicians with contempt will begin to see them as dispensable.

There is a case to be made for the claim that the public does not have enough say on governance, that one vote every five years is nowhere near sufficient. But a functioning democratic system must be constitutionally consistent. If the appetite for referendums is the appetite for increased public involvement, then there are other more effective avenues which lead to that. To attempt to invoke ‘the will of the people’ on an ad hoc basis is dangerous, and has little to do with what the public actually wants. It’s not about public involvement. It is a political power play, designed to render the opponent impotent, and it is a device of which we should be increasingly wary.   L

Time To Repay The Favour

By Joesph Parry

After the devastation of World War II, Europe lay in ruins whilst its population struggled to feed itself. The only allied power intact was the United States which from 1945 to 1947 was offering financial assistance to Europe; military assistance to Greece and Turkey and the newly formed United Nations was providing humanitarian assistance. US assistance culminated in the Marshall plan or what was officially known as the European Recovery Program (ERP). Its primary function was to rebuild the economies of Western Europe, which turned out to be a fantastic success. Steel and Coal industries led the economic prosperity and helped to formulate what we now know as the European Union.

Since then the United States has led the West to a Cold War victory and continues to share an economic, military, diplomatic, and cultural allegiance with Europe. However, the US is beginning to reprioritise its strategic interests as it ‘pivots’ towards Asia and a rising China. Leading to speculation by European officials about what is going to happen to NATO as US troops leave Europe for the Pacific theatre. Although the US would still have just under 40,000 troops left in Europe this is a real opportunity for Europe to increase its hard power and fill any power vacuum.

If Europe were to improve upon its current Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) and build up its military capabilities this would prevent Europe from becoming geopolitically irrelevant in an era of giants such as the US, China, Russia and India. Furthermore, Europe could start looking after its own neighbourhood – particularly the Middle East, North Africa, and even deter a resurgent Russia. Moreover we would be returning the favour to the United States, shouldering global responsibilities together.

Fair enough, Europe’s economy is hardly vibrant. The Euro Area has no growth with unemployment at 11.9%. Suffering from the worst financial collapse since Wall Street in 1929 and the subsequent sovereign debt crisis, the EU has lost its swagger.

The result of economic misery is stagnant or reduced defence budgets. Austerity measures across Western and Central Europe have meant that eighteen European countries have seen real-term falls of more than 10% in military spending since 2008. This is unlikely to change in the near future, not until the Eurozone crisis is finally resolved, economies restructured, and growth levels begin to rise.

So how can the EU help the US with a sick economy and ailing defence budgets? The obvious answer is pooling resources so as to offset some of the impact on defence budgets. This to a degree is already happening. The UK and France are currently training together to develop a new joint expeditionary force. Belgium and the Netherlands co-operate in helicopter maintenance and Bulgaria and Romania have made it easier to police each other’s airspace. A catalogue of national niche military capabilities could go some way to remedying any military shortfalls. For example, Britain supported France by providing logistical support it did not have for its intervention in Mali.

Europe could significantly improve its military strength were its economic engine, Germany, willing to bolster its own armed forces. Currently the German military lags behind the UK and France much to the displeasure of hard headed Europeans who wish to see a more involved EU. Speaking in Berlin last year, Philip Hammond the UK defence secretary said that Germany’s ‘historic reluctance’ to launch military action outside its borders is now limiting its international importance. If the EU-3 were to combine equal military strength with the rest of Europe, then the ability to conduct a mission such as in Libya remains feasible.

By utilising all of Europe’s resources and maintaining the hope that Germany will eventually match its economic might militarily, Europe can do three things. First it can aid the US ‘pivot’, in which the EU has an interest, by taking over some US responsibilities in European trouble spots like the Balkans and more importantly NATO. This will free up troops for the US whilst securing the Trans-Atlantic alliance’s strength and importance.

Second, the EU can become more self-reliant in defence and not rely solely on the US. Interventions in Libya and Mali exemplify Europe’s ability to do this although these conflicts were relatively small-scale and short. However, whether through EU institutions or bilaterally, Europeans have a real opportunity to fill a potential power vacuum with their own strength.

Thirdly, in a world increasingly dominated by powers of continental dimensions, the EU can avoid becoming a geostrategic irrelevance by strengthening its voice. This does not have to conflict with the EU’s normative power. If anything, Europe could do with hard power behind its soft not only to defend what the EU has achieved but also to support spreading its message to the periphery of Europe.

The United States has done plenty of good for Europe but is now coming under criticism from EU officials for changing strategic direction. Understandably, EU members wish to make sure that NATO is still important to America as well as the continent itself. However, the response to the US ‘pivot’ should not be fear. It is an opportunity; to help the US when it too is going through fiscal and economic difficulties, whilst increasingly under strain after ‘a decade of war’. At the same time the EU will have a more muscular voice, greater European cooperation and security in its own borders, all the while repaying a favour from over sixty years ago.

Racism and you: Cameron’s easy EU scapegoat

By Patrick Lee

There’s a book by Andrew Gamble called The Conservative Nation. Gamble suggests that despite all attempts to modernise, the Tory party will never be able to reconcile its nationalistic ideology. Glory to England. God Save The Queen. No surrender. That type of thing. Cameron won leadership of the Tory party by promising its hardcore Eurosceptic members, the nationalists, that he would provide a referendum on EU membership. He will now have to hold this referendum in his second term, if he wins the election outright, which he didn’t manage last time.

In making a pledge to hold this referendum Cameron has put all potential investors into Great Britain in a state of gross uncertainty. 57% of our trade is with Europe, where there are no cost trade restrictions and free goods flow. Isolationist policies have not worked, anywhere, (for the most obvious example, read up on N Korea’s latest famine). Austerity, also, has not worked in clawing any country out of the recession anywhere, and yet we continue to pursue austerity measures. Spending in the EU did not get us into this position. Nor, for that matter, did spending on welfare. What got us into this position was unregulated banking investments and out of control corporate tax laws. Cameron will look to blame the EU to fit his own political ambitions.

It is widely believed Cameron has accepted a deal with UKIP and Nigel Farage, the terms of which are basically that a referendum will be held on EU membership in return for UKIP not standing against Tory candidates in key seats.

Ignoring how strikingly evil and murky this deal is, let’s just focus on its consequences: prepare to hear, especially in the build up to the next election, arguments about immigration. We will be told that The European Union, and the amount of money we put into it, and the weaker state of other economies dragging us down, and the movement between Europe and the huge increase in workers in the UK this has brought, is fundamentally damaging to the UK. This is designed to distract from the real story: the woeful state of our economy and our lost generation of workers. If there is any doubt as to the significance of the EU, read this footnote from The Guardian[1].

Jack Buckby is a perfect example of how our conceptions of race, immigration and equality will be challenged in the up-coming election. He has aimed to change the language used when framing anti-immigration policy, rather than adding anything new to the debate. He has put a new mask on the same face. The point is that immigration is not to blame for the fact that this government is the first ever to preside over a triple dip recession, or the widening gap between rich and poor. The EU is not to blame for the continued failure of austerity measures in every country that tries them. All Cameron is doing by making this deal with UKIP and offering a referendum on Europe is to inappropriately introduce the topic of race back into the debate. Don’t be fooled.


[1] What did the EEC/EU ever do for us? Not much, apart from: providing 57% of our trade; structural funding to areas hit by industrial decline; clean beaches and rivers; cleaner air; lead free petrol; restrictions on landfill dumping; a recycling culture; cheaper mobile charges; cheaper air travel; improved consumer protection and food labelling; a ban on growth hormones and other harmful food additives; better product safety; single market competition bringing quality improvements and better industrial performance; break up of monopolies; Europe-wide patent and copyright protection; no paperwork or customs for exports throughout the single market; price transparency and removal of commission on currency exchanges across the eurozone; freedom to travel, live and work across Europe; funded opportunities for young people to undertake study or work placements abroad; access to European health services; labour protection and enhanced social welfare; smoke-free workplaces; equal pay legislation; holiday entitlement; the right not to work more than a 48-hour week without overtime; strongest wildlife protection in the world;

Labour and the EU referendum

By Alex Bryan

Over halfway into the current parliament, characterised predominantly by economic austerity, one of the main criticisms of the Labour Party from the left (and indeed centrists rapidly losing confidence in George Osborne’s strategy) is that, though they have opposed the coalition policies, they have not done enough to oppose the underlying assumptions that have gone with them. The best example of this is the cut in real terms to benefits recently passed in the House of Commons. The rhetoric which the government used to try and sell the policy was essentially one of divide-and-rule, pitting the ‘strivers’ against the ‘shirkers’.

The reason for the difficulty Labour had in getting their point across was that they used the specific terms the coalition employed to attack the policy. The reason the coalition employed the ‘strivers and shirkers’ line was because the logical conclusion of employing such a divide is a policy similar to theirs. For Labour to attempt to stop that policy whilst simultaneously using rhetoric which presupposed its validity was a doomed strategy.

Since the Prime Minister announced that a referendum on Britain’s membership is to be held in the next Parliament (if the Conservative Party wins a majority, which looks fairly unlikely), commentators in general have seen it as a masterstroke on the part of Cameron and have scorned Ed Miliband’s lacklustre response. However, one must remember that in terms of both the 2015 election and the possible 2017 referendum, it is early days yet.

It is clear that Labour must begin to create a strategy to argue against the Conservatives though, because it is unlikely that the Tories will not place the referendum pledge at the heart of their campaign. And in order to succeed, Labour must learn some lessons from the benefits debate.

Not every Conservative is a Eurosceptic, but it is clear that the campaign to leave the EU will be led by Conservatives. This group has an immediate advantage in that the British public is by and large anti-EU. It will also be helped by the fact that the bulk of the British media takes a strong anti-EU position.

But they still need to make their argument. It seems likely that the argument this coalition of Eurosceptics employs will follow the guidelines set out by UKIP over the past few years, concentrating on sovereignty, EU bureaucracy and the supposed economic loss that comes from being an EU member state.

The pro-EU side (which, at least until 2015, will be most strongly represented by Labour) cannot simply oppose these points if it is to be successful. Much like the debate over benefits, to debate the EU over the terms set out by those against it would result in failure. In order to convince sections of the public that the European Union is not a hindrance to Britain and the British economy, Labour and the Lib Dems must redefine the terms of the debate.

The centrepiece of the pro-EU argument cannot be the economy. Firstly, the economic benefits or losses are so difficult to calculate, with so many conflicting conclusions, that such a stance would convince few outside of those already pro-EU. Secondly, the reason UKIP have been so successful in pushing an anti-EU agenda is because the issues they have focussed on are emotive. People will get passionate about protecting British sovereignty. People will admittedly get passionate about saving British jobs, but the anti-EU side can make that argument in a far more emotive way by concentrating on immigration. People will not get passionate about a macro-economic argument about growth, even if the economic woes of our time persist in 2017.

Labour and the Lib Dems instead must concentrate on the social goods of the EU, so rarely focussed on. The Conservatives will make an argument that the Working Time Directive, the existence of the European Court of Human Rights and the Human Rights Act are a drag on the economy, an attack on British sovereignty and overly bureaucratic. The pro-EU side needs to focus their campaign on issues like these, for there is significant scope to persuade the public that EU membership protects them as workers and indeed as individuals more effectively than any domestic legislation could.

It is an essential aspect of the British constitutional tradition that any law, no matter how important, can be repealed or replaced by a simple majority vote in Parliament. Whilst this provides a great flexibility for change, it makes entrenching rights very difficult. Our membership of the European Union entrenches the rights of British citizens more deeply than any domestic law could do. By emphasising this, and other social benefits to the EU, Labour and the Lib Dems might be able to begin to overturn the immense Euroscepticism of the British public.

The Diplomatic Value of the EU – Why the current debate on British EU membership misses the mark

By Beth O’Brien

For a snowy week in January, current affairs enthusiasts have been spoilt for big news stories. A hostage crisis in Algeria, Hillary Clinton testifying on Benghazi, North Korea threatening “a new confrontation with the US”, and a declaration from David Cameron that a re-elected Conservative government will hold an in-out referendum on European Union membership.

Debate about EU membership invariably centres around the economic. Should we follow the working time directive? What about the Euro? However, I submit that these discussions are all but irrelevant. The European Union represents much more than purely an integrated market. The diplomatic value of the European Union cannot be understated. To leave the EU now would be a gross oversight by the government of the United Kingdom, and so the current concerns about economic cost of membership should be sidelined.

All of the news stories I mentioned above had a decidedly international flavour, and they all relate to something that could impact the UK in some way. The 21st century presents its own challenges that we are yet to fully understand. There are established non-state threats, such as Al Qaeda and associated groups. However, there are also state-based threats to international security. Over the last week, North Korea has declared its intention to violate UN Security Council requests to cease testing rockets. According to state television, these rockets are designed to be used to attack the US in the near future. Also this week, Benjamin Netanyahu’s party was returned to power, albeit only just. Netanyahu declared his priority to be the prevention of Iran’s nuclear weapons programme. It is clear then, that there is a complex list of possible threats to domestic security.

Membership of the European Union offers the UK another outlet to participate diplomatically on security issues. Particularly in relation to the Middle East, Europe is in an important geopolitical position. A unified, strong position and shared policy from the EU will allow a more effective combating of potential threats. Indeed, the European Union website states “acting together as the EU, the 27 member countries have far greater weight and influence than if they act individually, following 27 different policies.” Non-participation in this matter not only drastically reduces the weight of influence we as a nation have, but may also weaken the position of the EU. For what is a unified European viewpoint without one of its most prosperous nations?

“But isn’t that what NATO’s for”, I hear the Eurosceptics cry. Granted, NATO does represent an invaluable web of allies for the UK, and given it is a military alliance, can deter potential threats from acting at all. My argument in response to this is twofold. Firstly, the EU includes a number of states that are not in NATO, and so a unified position from both the EU and NATO would have greater coverage. This is especially important when we consider the potential influence of ex-Soviet Union nations. A unified position that may, in some respects, cross cultural boundaries, may have more influence than a purely ‘Anglo-American’ statement. Secondly, the European Union is not a military alliance. Diplomatically, this can appear to be less ‘confrontational’ than threats from NATO.

Regardless, I believe the more avenues we have to present our own specialised security needs, the better. Membership of the EU creates an environment for us to liaise with the other major European powers without the influence of America. To lose this capacity for influence would be to seriously damage our own security interests in the future.

As an aside, it may be relevant here to mention that we were only at war with some of the nations of Europe 70 years ago. To say that this is not relevant is, in my opinion, to come from the false assumption that war between modern European states is a theoretical impossibility. Before World War I began in 1914, we existed in “splendid isolation” from mainland Europe, choosing only to enter into military alliances to prevent a hegemon emerging on the mainland and threatening British sea trade with the Empire. Before World War II, Hitler (yes, I am Godwin-ing this) admired Britain and her society, openly considering the possibility of a formal alliance. Of course, I am not saying if we leave the EU we will war with mainland Europe, nor will membership permanently prevent a possible altercation. However, we cannot foresee what challenges the rest of this century and beyond will bring. Distancing ourselves from our European allies would be foolish, no matter the economic implications.

Our relationship with our allies within the confines of the EU is worthy of debate. Membership as a whole, I would argue, is not. If the referendum does come round, I hope campaigners will consider other factors outside the economic, and see the EU for what it really is – a mechanism for cooperation and alliance in an increasingly unstable world.

The problem is not Europe, it’s the European Union

By Alex Bryan

Attempting to halt the disturbing rise of UKIP in opinion polls, David Cameron is set to give a speech later this month in which he will set himself up as someone wanting ‘real change’ in the relationship between Britain and the European Union. Predictably, this had led to sceptical commentary from euro-sceptic pundits , claiming that even if Cameron does starting walking the walk, the talk is still far from forthcoming.

One of the possible outcomes of UKIPs rise to a position of mainstream political credibility is that a deal will be formed between UKIP and the Conservatives whereby UKIP do not run any candidates in the general election in exchange for the Conservatives enacting UKIP’s central policy.

The increasing anti-EU sentiment makes many feel like an in-out referendum is the only option. Conservatives rally against the restrictions the EU brings with it – the working time directive, European Court of Human Rights, unrestricted labour movement and the need for Parliament to comply with EU Laws. Liberals and those on the left are quieter about the flaws of Europe, but from a left-wing perspective there are clearly some problems. The imposition of austerity on Greece, Ireland, Spain and Portugal when the people were clearly opposed suggests that the EU is intent on implementing a centre-right fiscal strategy. Nothing that the IMF or the ECB has done in the years since the financial crisis has done anything to dispel this notion.

The trouble with both of these arguments is that they will simply be opposed by the contrary political position. For liberals, the working time directive and the human rights act are two of the best pieces of EU legislation, and Conservatives fear the impact of populist fiscal policy around Europe. But clearly there is a problem with the European Union. One does not have to subscribe to a Hobbessian notion of sovereignty to think that the EU’s undemocratic structure is a problem, one simply has to believe in democracy. This is the attraction of UKIP’s argument.

One thing that has not really been commented on, but is of vital importance, is the semantic practices around the EU. More often than not, we refer to it as ‘Europe’. This is worth commenting on, because it is crucial to note that the EU is not synonymous with Europe, neither is it the only possibility for a European political project. Perhaps the most insidious aspect of the EU is that it is essentially immune from revolt or revolution. Riots in Athens have had no effect on the IMF/Greek fiscal policy. When accountability is lost in a legislative ad bureaucratic labyrinth, who exactly is meant to revolt?

The essential problem with the notion of an in-out debate is that it ascribes these problems to ‘Europe’ rather than ‘the European Union’. It suggests that being out of the European Union means cutting the string irreparably and launching for Ellis Island. The point needs to be made that just because the European Union is an anti-democratic, restrictive, quasi- tyrannical relic of the cold war era does not mean that a new European project can never be launched with different ideals and principles.  Indeed, it would have to be. The age of nations being able to dominate (or even compete) on their own terms within the international community is gone. The terms these days are ‘co-operate or bust’. Unfortunately, the European Union seems to be drifting into a Kafka-esque state of eternal confusion and dehumanisation. This need not be the fate of Europe. Whether it would be more effective to fight for a better European project from inside or outside the EU is a question no one knows the answer to. The frightening thing is that few seem to be asking the question.