New priorities for the EU institutions' reform agenda

#CriticalThinking

Picture of Gareth Thomas
Gareth Thomas

Labour & Coop MP Harrow West

At this year’s European elections, voters expressed a clear desire for change. They did so amid growing concern over the EU’s ability to tackle the economic, political and social changes Europe is facing.

In Britain, the Labour party remains clear that it is in Britain’s national interest to remain in a reformed European Union that would be better equipped to address challenges like low growth and high unemployment in many European countries.

Addressing the London School of Business in February, our party leader Ed Miliband set out three sources of concern he believes we need to address. First, there is the link between people’s economic circumstances and their view of how effectively the European Union works. There are more than 25m unemployed across Europe with more than a fifth of them under 25. In the UK, the economy has only just returned to its size before the 2008 global financial crisis, and living standards are falling as wages increase at a lower rate than inflation.

Second, there is genuine concern about the impact of immigration, and the effect that rapid change can have on local communities. We in the Labour party have been clear about the benefits immigration has brought to the UK, but we also acknowledge people’s concerns about the impact on public services, particularly relating to benefits, that can engender a sense of unfairness.

Third, there are concerns that the EU isn’t truly accountable. Many issues such as tackling terrorism, crime and climate change require strong cross border co-operation. But it is important that action on these issues should be open to scrutiny, and that decisions are taken at EU level rather than nationally only when it’s necessary.

Actions to prevent a race to the bottom in which workers’ conditions become less and less secure would go some way to helping address the concerns people have on migration

In Britain’s Labour party we have set out an ambitious reform agenda to confront these concerns. On the economy, it is good to see that our call for an EU Commissioner for Growth to be appointed has seen the appointment of former Finnish prime minister Jyrki Katainen. In the incoming European Commission headed by Jean-Claude Juncker, Katainen’s brief is to ensure that the new Commission is focused on policies that promote growth. We believe that any new piece of EU legislation should also have to undergo an independent audit to assess the impact it would have on growth.

To boost living standards and create jobs, it is also crucial that we deepen the single market, particularly in the digital and services industries and accelerate efforts to deepen our trading relationship with large countries such as the United States or India.

More action needs to be taken at EU level to tackle low pay and insecurity at work. Through reforming labour market rules, the EU can help raise standards and prevent abuses of minimum wage legislation, and unfair practices associated with zero hour contracts. Actions to prevent a race to the bottom in which workers’ conditions become less and less secure would go some way to helping address the concerns people have on migration.

We in the Labour party have emphasised that we want to see reforms to help manage the impact of freedom of movement across the EU, in particular by extending transitional arrangements that dictate the period of time people from any new EU member states have to wait before being able to travel freely to look for work here in the UK. There are legitimate concerns, too, about fairness when it comes to access to benefits, and we would look to stop the payment of benefits to those not resident in the UK, and double the time someone from the EU must wait before they are able to claim Jobseekers Allowance.

To address concerns regarding the EU’s exercise of power and its accountability, a ‘red card’ system should be introduced, allowing national parliaments to come together to block unwanted EU legislation. A zero-based review of spending by all EU agencies should also be introduced to identify and address any overlaps or duplications in spending.

People throughout Europe are seeing their living standards fall, and worry that the EU is not effective enough at tackling the economic difficulties they face. It is vital that new priorities should be reflected in the EU institutions, and that the EU is reformed so it can tackle the economic and political challenges we face.

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