Good politics, now all Labour needs is a policy

Sir Julian Priestley

By Sir Julian Priestley

Labour’s decision to put a three-line whip on the vote on an in/out referendum was a good decision. It moved the focus to the resurgence of Tory divisions on Europe. It seemed like statesmanship to be offering to dig the prime minister out of the hole into which the government had fallen. It struck a chord with those who considered it borderline insane to be toying with a referendum and all the uncertainties that it would provoke, at a time of grave economic crisis. It sent a message to our partners in Europe, involved in the most difficult and complex negotiations about the future of the euro, that the main opposition party at least was not going to get distracted by this, or start playing Russian roulette with Europe’s future.

In his Guardian interview a couple of days before the vote, Ed Miliband rightly exposed the true agenda of the Tory eurosceptics. The traditional flat-earthers have now been joined by a group of Tory MPs, mostly elected for the first time in 2010. They have a coherent agenda; they hate the EU not just because it is seen as a socialist plot (!), and because it threatens some nineteenth century notion of national independence. What they are really seeking is the unravelling of any social protection, health and safety legislation, undermining high environmental standards and strong consumer protection which at the moment are guaranteed by EU legislation. Out of Europe, does anyone seriously imagine that the current House of Commons would vote through national legislation to fill the void left by the EU laws which no longer applied?

The true eurosceptic agenda is the removal of all the constraints on the kind of rampant jungle capitalism that they support. They oppose Europe not because of the purely theoretical attachment to national sovereignty (which they would gladly throw out the window if they saw an opportunity of cosying up to some future neocon administration in Washington) but because Europe means market capitalism tempered by certain legal, social and environmental constraints which they abhor. The Tory Right, much of the City, the Murdochs, the Mail, the Express and the Telegraph hate Europe because of what it does just as much as what it is.

This appears not to have dawned on Kate Hoey and Frank Field and the little band of 17 Labour eurosceptics who show no signs of being uncomfortable in supporting a strategy which would inevitably lead to a fundamental assault on the welfare state, on equality legislation, on trade union rights and on environmental protection. Or is this simply the first glimpse of what ‘Blue Labour’ is really all about- a kind of surrealistic triangulation which actually provides the weapons to your opponents to eradicate the social progress which your party has painstakingly and often inadequately achieved since it was founded?

Another good point made by Miliband is the exclusion of the UK from the inner councils of the EU when the eurozone countries meet to take decisions about the euro which are quite fundamental to the future survival of the UK economy. When the banking system was in meltdown in the autumn of 2008, Gordon Brown was a key player in the eurozone summits in Paris, preparing a common European position for the G8 and G20 meetings. Cameron and Osborne at first seemed to relish their exclusion, limiting their constructive engagement to signing joint letters with the Canadians to beg the EU to take the right decisions! Seeing this play badly at home, and with the vote in the Commons approaching, they went into a hissy-fit in Brussels and secured the right to be present at a pre-euro summit ritual for the 27, before they have to leave when the real decisions need to be taken; like the ladies being expected to depart the dining room before the port is handed round at the kind of dinner party the current Prime Minister knows very well. So much for being at the heart of Europe.

In fact Cameron seeks to make a virtue of being at an increasing distance from ‘the action’ in Brussels, as a way of soft renegotiation. According to this view, we may not repatriate many powers from the EU, but the distance with the core member states is growing because they are moving on. And if the 17 have to negotiate a new treaty to shore up the economic governance of the euro, the UK can always slip in some renegotiation of existing treaties. Miliband has rightly illustrated the dangerous things the coalition might wish to renegotiate, watering down social and environmental protection, for example. And one has really to wonder if even this government would veto necessary changes to the treaty to make the euro work better and help the UK’s own beleaguered economy just to curry favour with their own europhobic MPs and press supporters. Our partners would see through this cack-handed bluffing straight away.

As Labour emerges from its first serious engagement with the Tories on Europe since the election with a tactical success, it should be emboldened to develop a European policy. A position which highlights Tory division, condemns distractions, draws attention to the danger of excluding ourselves from key decisions in the EU does not amount to a policy. Labour’s old European policy when it was in government (support for light touch regulation, absolute priority for the internal market over the social dimension, keeping Europe onside whenever differences might emerge with Washington, promoting enlargement without limits, preferring the intergovernmental approach – and a curious penchant for joint initiatives with Berlusconi, and, before him, Aznar) looks not so much threadbare as a chronicle of missed opportunities.   

A genuinely Labour European policy now needs to spell out our fundamental aims in the Union, to translate them into practical policies for government, and for the next EP elections in 2014, and to work with our socialist allies in other capitals for a common programme, at a time when there are the first stirrings of a centre-left, continent-wide but uneven, revival.

The starting point should be the development of a Europe-wide economic platform for jobs and growth as a counterpoint to the right’s austerity obsession. It should support transforming the EU budget and EU financial institutions into instruments for strengthening social investment and competitiveness, and recognise that a measured increase in resources is appropriate for a budget which is given Herculean tasks and insufficient means. It should promote strong regulation of financial and banking services. It should support and campaign for a Europe-wide transactions tax. Positive about genuine free trade, it should nonetheless engage in the debate about the means of preventing our trading partners securing an unfair competitive advantage through undercutting our high environmental and social standards. It should be actively supporting an effective EU common foreign policy with strong political and economic aid for emerging democracies in our Neighbourhood, and highlight Tory attempts undermine the new External Action service. On the institutions it should be at the forefront of those calling for the next Commission to be more democratically accountable.

And on the euro? The old policy of ‘when the conditions are met’ may seem to have been holed under the waterline. But if the eurozone does finally sort out its problems, and if a stronger form of governance formalises the exclusion of non-euro countries from key economic decision-making, will the case against our participation still seem so anachronistic in two or three years time? We should for now rule nothing in and nothing out.

The last few weeks have flushed out the Tory eurosceptics. The vote in the Commons leaves scars in the Tory parliamentary party which will act as an inhibitor on the development of government European policy. Our enemies in the eurosceptic Tory press have been weakened for other reasons. A progressive, responsible European policy is right in its own terms and makes for good politics as well. Developing such a policy should be a priority for the new Shadow Cabinet.

Julian Priestley is former Secretary General of the European Parliament, now commenting, writing and advising about European questions.  The opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of Federal Union.

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