Comment: Corbyn is right to be wary of the EU – it’s an instrument of austerity

By Carl Packman

Since the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader, no stone will be left unturned on what his personal politics are on the issues of the day. The one ruffling most feathers at the moment is the question of whether he'd campaign to stay in the European Union, or to leave it.

There is already confusion and ambiguity on the answer.

Chuka Ummuna demonstrated once again his hissy-fitting side by running to the press relaying an apparent conversation between himself and Corbyn where the new leader admitted he might back Britain leaving. Or at least that's how the headlines read.

In fact, Corbyn has stated quite clearly that he doesn't wish to give David Cameron a blank cheque of support for his EU renegotiations effort and that the changes must be the right ones.

This, I would contend, is a rather sensible position. Cameron isn't exactly in the good books of Angela Merkel and the other EU leaders, over the refugee crisis and beyond, so his bargaining power is becoming altogether weaker.

Corbyn is correct in waiting to see what Mr Cameron achieves and will consult with the Labour party for a position when the time is right.

But this issue has become all the more confused with the intervention of new shadow foreign secretary Hilary Benn, who tried to calm the nerves of pro-European Labour supporters by saying the party will be campaigning to stay in.

So, has Corbyn told different stories to both parties? I don't think he's the sort of person who would blatantly lie about something on which he has strong opinions. Say what you want about the man, he is unceasingly principled.

What I imagine has happened is that Corbyn echoed the same opinion to both Ummuna and Benn and what's resulted is that both men have taken it in the way they wanted to: Ummuna, once publicly admitting his unwillingness to work with Corbyn, has blown things out of all proportions, while the more constructive Benn has seen an opportunity to challenge the party leader.

TTIP has raised left-wing concerns about how the EU does business

I, however, think there is a strong case, from the left, on supporting a Brexit, whatever minor changes Cameron hopes to achieve. If no decision is yet concrete on the question of the EU, I hope the new Labour leader will take the following points very seriously.

Firstly, the EU is no stranger to secretive decision-making and undercutting the will of the public. The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) revealed how backdoor privatisation deals can be made through totally above-board bilateral trade agreements between the EU and the US.

The deal — which signed-up member states can only accept or reject, not amend — opens up public services to competition from US firms. In areas where there is existing privatisation, such as our National Health Service, US firms can bid for commissions.

It’s ridiculous that this is even an option. If there's one thing we've learned about opening our NHS to private firms it is that it's rarely value for money. Look at how PFI is haemorrhaging money.

What's more offensive is that it's happening without our say-so. These are decisions cooked up by Brussels bureaucrats without the validation of the British electorate.

Secondly, when EU leaders face a challenge from an elected government, they're more than happy to pile on the pressure until that government runs out of choices and effectively collapses.

Look at the example of Greece – the home of democracy. Presidential candidate Alexis Tsipras once entered a bitter fight about the self-determination of the Greek electorate and the counter-productivity of EU-imposed austerity measures.

Now, he has lost that fight and the country faces another election battle. The immediate upshot is more austerity with privatisation measures, despite the economy shrinking by 25% under those terms before.

So is this just a phase of the EU? Will it get better and less fiscally conservative in time? Not likely. In 2010 the European semester system was created which meant each member state had their national budgets approved by the European Commission. Why? To make sure it sat correctly within the Commission's political and economic agenda.

In the same year the European Financial Stability Facility was created, which set in law the austerity conditions for bailout loans for struggling nations.

The Treaty on Stability, Co-ordination and Governance in the Economic and Monetary Union (known as the Fiscal Stability Treaty) effectively enshrines into law balanced budgets and near-zero structural deficits, which in turn outlaws expansionary fiscal policy.

This accords with the EU Fiscal Compact which is a legal requirement on eurozone states to slash their public debt (by 1.5% of GDP in France, two per cent in Spain and 3.5% in Italy and Portugal) every year for the next two decades.

So rather than the EU project being one that promotes harmony between nations it pits rich against poor, creditor nation against debtor nation.

That's not democracy. That's the will of the unelected European Commission, the European Council and the Council of Ministers. A hopeless system that the left should have no truck with.

Issues like what is happening in Greece have made the left re-think their stance on Europe. Corbyn will be no different. But leaving the EU is a big step, so convincing him of the merits of a Brexit is all to play for. I for one hope he sees sense.

Carl Packman is an author, writer and researcher, specialising in issues around debt, finance, and welfare policy. You can follow him on Twitter.

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