John Major’s attack on Euro-sceptics as living in “fantasy land” hits on an uneasy fault line. There is a fissure within the Conservative Party, between an aspiration to again be ‘the natural party of government’, and a temptation to fall back on knee-jerk, Tea Party style approaches which win quick votes. At its core this remains a 1980s distinction, between high-handed ‘wets’ and the visceral politics of Thatcherism. This is perhaps why Major’s experiences remain so relevant 16 years on – nothing really has changed. The Conservatives are still torn between rhyme and reason.
This schism is brought into sharp relief by today’s European parliament vote on trafficking and organised crime. MEPs from across the member states have overwhelmingly endorsed recommendations by the Organised Crime committee, following a new report on trafficking networks. The report advocates tougher sanctions and renewed emphasis on improving labour conditions. It also asks for a pan-European public prosecutor’s office, and has drawn calls from trafficking NGOs for a more proactive Europol.
How the Conservatives respond to this will be fascinating. On the one hand Theresa May has made a clear and commendable pledge to end Modern Slavery; on the other she has persistently sought to repatriate judicial and policing powers from Europe and talk tough on immigration. These two approaches are wholly contradictory. They are two dogs, lashed together, which will simply never run in the same direction.
According to the committee’s report there are currently 880,000 enslaved people in Europe – 270,000 of whom work in the sex industry. I know from my own efforts to address sex trafficking that acting unilaterally just isn’t an option when faced with the fluid challenges posed by globalised crime. As the National Crime Agency’s Keith Bristow says, organised crime now operates “in an interconnected world where international borders are much less significant.”
On top of this – as the 2004 Morecambe Bay disaster showed – the groups most vulnerable to trafficking are refugees and migrant workers. These individuals need more help from the UK government. Instead, as Walk Free’s Global Trafficking Index reports, the UK’s vulnerability to trafficking is exacerbated by the “incredibly precarious living situation” our asylum system creates for people going through it.
The Conservatives’ hostility to the European Arrest Warrant, Europol, Eurojust, and the European Bill of Human Rights – not to mention their aggressive stance on asylum seekers – therefore fly in the face of all serious attempts to tackle trafficking. Moreover they undermine the party’s self-styled toughness on crime, and make a mockery of any designs their MPs have on becoming ‘the natural party of government’.
In July of this year the Conservatives grudgingly agreed to ‘opt back into’ 35 of the 130 EU Law and Order measures which they had previously withdrawn from, meaning Britain will now, thankfully, retain our involvement in Europol and the European Arrest Warrant.
But we need to go much further. As Anti-Slavery International’s Klara Skrivankova puts it, “The tools are there, but we don’t use them enough. Europol is still seen as a supplementary force – it should be more proactive.” To genuinely take on the scourge of trafficking we must not just pay lip service to Europe, but throw our full weight behind the solutions it can provide. On the issue of trafficking – if on nothing else – we really do need an ‘ever closer union’.
I would therefore urge Theresa May, if she wants to show she is genuine about tackling modern slavery, to set aside her party’s gut impulses for a moment and focus on the real problems the modern world faces. The alternative for the Tories is to succumb to incoherence and allow the brawnier, stupider of the two animals lashed together to lead Britain down an isolationist course which ultimately makes us more vulnerable.