With a referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union (EU) due to take place next year, co-operators from across the country are debating what the movement’s response should be. In a fringe session at the Co-operative Party conference, delegates explored the reasons why co-ops may want to make the case for staying in Europe.
Claire McCarthy, policy officer at the Party, said the organisation would be campaigning for the UK to remain a member of the EU. From an ideological point of view, the EU’s values of co-operation and solidarity are consistent with the co-operative ethos.
“The very heart of the notion of co-operation is about solidarity, that is what the EU is all about. At its heart is the notion that by working together we can do great things together,” she said.
According to Ms McCarthy, at practical level there are two areas where the EU is making a difference to what co-operatives are trying to achieve: renewable energy and tax transparency. Brussels has been campaigning on reducing CO2 emissions and promoting renewable energy initiatives, including co-operatives and community energy schemes. In terms of tax transparency, some of the legislative initiatives carried out by the EU falls in line with the Fair Tax Mark pioneered by co-ops. EU regulation has also allowed local authorities to reserve certain contracts for co-operatives and mutuals when procuring services.
“These are just a few examples where practical action at EU level can support the work in Britain,” said Ms McCarthy. “We need to mobilise our members to get involved in this and make it clear it’s something the Co-operative Party is passionate about. It’s important. We have got a lot to lose.”
Another speaker at the session, Giampi Alhadell, chair of the Labour Movement for Europe, said a big challenge was the fact that the EU’s greatest achievements – peace, economic growth, the single market and social rights – were showing signs of problems.
“Take peace for example. The whole border of the EU, from Ukraine, to the Middle East, to North Africa is in turmoil and they are not sure how to deal with that.” He explained how the message of austerity remained the dominant orthodoxy even though moderate parties were losing territory to more radical ones. The stagnation of economic growth poses serious challenges to Eurozone countries, he said. Mr Alhadell thinks the existence of the single market is also being threatened by increased concerns over immigration in some EU member states, including the UK. He added that while social rights EU legislation on equal pay for men and women and holidays for the low paid as well as legislation against discrimination had empowered workers across the UK, the positive social legislative initiatives had stalled in recent years. Equal pay was adopted as a core principle of the European Union in 1957, when it was founded as the then European Economic Community.
“You have to say that for us as the UK and the Co-operative Party, we have a better chance to address these challenges if we are within the EU,” he said, asking Co-operative Party members to affiliate to Labour’s Movement for Europe.
The panellists agreed that campaigning for staying in the EU would be difficult. While the government is expected to recommend a “Yes” vote, the Co-operative and Labour parties will have to campaign as well. Key to making the case for the EU will be building a practical case and involving people at local level, thinks Claire McCarthy.
Sometimes the benefits seem big – like peace or economic prosperity – but to an ordinary person on the street understanding what that means for their family and community is what will make people vote “Yes”. We need to be careful that the “Yes” doesn’t become the status quo campaign. It’s a lot less inspiring than offering people some alternative. We need to offer something that is about reform; we can’t be a campaign about fear of staying out, but a positive case for staying in.
“It’s an elite lecturing people sometimes, that’s often the way it’s seen, the political establishment advocating for EU membership against an insurgent movement, so we have to try to be an insurgent movement within that campaign”.
Stephen Twigg, Labour and Co-operative MP for Liverpool and chair of the International Development Select Committee warned about the challenging context for the “Yes” campaign, with the public mistrusting politicians and scepticism of the EU.
He said: “For us as Labour people, as co-operators, internationalism is surely a core value. I am an internationalist and I believe in co-operation with people across the world.” The MP said he welcomed Jeremy Corbyn’s commitment to restoring social rights included in EU treaties, should they be removed by the Conservative government in light of a Brexit. He added that EU reform was needed, but that the UK should remain a member of the unions even if the prime minister failed to secure a satisfying deal in negotiations with European leaders.
Joining the discussion, Labour and Co-operative councillor for Manchester, Kevin Peel, said that many constituencies across the UK had benefited from funding from the EU. Other delegates have raised concerns about the danger of having a “Berlin Wall” in Ireland and the possibility of Scotland leaving the kingdom, in case of a Brexit.
Mr Twigg also opposes the exit on the grounds that co-operatives and social enterprises in his constituency have benefited from the EU. In Merseyside, EU funding totalled more than €2bn (£1.47bn) for infrastructure and regeneration projects.
“What we want is Europe, but we want a citizens’ Europe. We need a campaign led more by citizens than politicians,” he added.
In this article
- Claire McCarthy
- Co-operative councillor
- Co-operative MP
- Co-operative Party
- Conservative government
- European Economic Community
- European Union
- Giampi Alhadell
- International Development Select Committee
- Jeremy Corbyn
- Kevin Peel
- Middle East
- North Africa
- policy officer
- Prime Minister
- Renewable energy
- Stephen Twigg
- United Kingdom
- Withdrawal from the European Union
- United Kingdom