THERE is a vacuum at the heart of the EU referendum debate where the Labour Party should be.
This is because Labour has no substantial position of its own to put forward. Shadow foreign secretary Hilary Benn often sounds for all the world like a Cameron loyalist in some junior ministerial post, twittering on about EU membership supposedly giving us jobs, investment and economic growth.
When he praises the EU for responding to “Russian aggression” in Crimea and Ukraine, it might as well be Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond speaking.
Like the rest of Labour’s front bench, he appears to believe that employment, trade union and other social rights in Britain were delivered by a bountiful European Union.
This is not only an insult to generations of workers who fought to win the right to strike without fear of instant dismissal, legal standards of health and safety at work, trade union recognition rights, equal pay for women, a national minimum wage and so much else.
It is an insult to those previous Labour governments which embedded those rights in law, including the working time limits often cited as evidence of EU benevolence.
Yet the 1998 UK Working Time Regulations were the product of Labour’s general election manifesto in the previous year’s landslide.
They were not forced upon a reluctant British government by the EU, which has never lifted a finger to obstruct Tory anti-trade union laws since 1979 and will not protect us from new ones either.
Indeed, the EU happily allowed Tony Blair to drive a coach and horses through those regulations by allowing workers to sign a “voluntary” opt-out agreement with their employers.
Labour and trade union leaders who claim that the EU has brought trail-blazing rights for migrant (“posted”) workers also ignore a whole fleet of coaches and horses driven through the EU Posting of Workers Directive by the European Court of Justice.
ECJ rulings have outlawed trade union and regional or central government action to ensure equal treatment for workers brought by companies from one EU member state to another.
The Labour Party should be pointing out how EU treaty provisions for the free movement of labour are there to facilitate super-exploitation of migrant workers for profit.
Freedom of movement for capital enables the big multinational corporations to dodge taxation, shut factories and shift investment regardless of social or environmental considerations.
EU treaty provisions on government borrowing and debt, state aid for industry, free movement of commodities and public funding of capital investment would obstruct the left and progressive policies of a future Labour government at every turn.
Labour should be pointing out these realities — not engaging in the fantasy that today’s EU of austerity, privatisation and militarism can be transformed into a “social Europe” that will serve the exploited and oppressed.
Nor will closer collaboration between the labour movements of EU member states make any such transformation possible.
British Chambers of Commerce chief John Longworth was right to tell his annual conference that the EU is “incapable of reform,” although that fact is one more reason why most of big business supports staying in.
The extensive powers of the EU Commission, the ECJ and the European Central Bank — like the paltry “rights” of the remote European Parliament — are set in constitutional concrete. So, too, are EU monetarist and militarist policies.
Only unanimous agreement across all 28 member states can change the two basic EU treaties. That is not going to happen — and Labour should stop pretending otherwise.