Social Europe Journal 26 Sept 2014
What Labour Policy For Europe?
26/09/2014 by Denis McShane
Labour already has its most important policy in place on Europe. In an act of remarkable political courage Ed Miliband has rejected a copy-cat plebiscite to match David Cameron’s Brexit referendum of 2017.
It is important not to underestimate the importance of this decision. As with his calling time on Rupert Murdoch in 2011, or his decision not to endorse bombing Syria on behalf of jihadis last year, Ed Miliband has taken lonely brave decisions that cut against the grain of conventional political wisdom – namely always crawl to Rupert, never say No to Washington (the limited raids on Isis in Iraq already being undertaken by France are a different matter) and when in doubt offer a referendum on Europe.
That is what Tony Blair did when he promised plebiscites on the Euro before 1997 and then again on the EU constitution treaty in 2004. It bought time and silenced the off-shore owned press but at the cost of further marginalising the UK as a major EU player and further feeding the appetite of anti-EU isolationism. It is a mark of Ed Miliband’s bravery and political leadership that the decision to reject Cameron’s Brexit plebiscite is being attacked by major trade unions and even briefed against by some of his shadow cabinet. Any decision by a left leader that commands universal support is by definition a bad decision.
So at the next election the voters will have a clear choice. Do they want a re-run of the horrors of the Scottish plebiscite which so nearly resulted in the destruction of Europe’s longest surviving major democracy or will they say No to the Tory-UKIP vision of a Britain disuniting from its European partners in an act of self-marginalisation not seen since the United States quit Europe in 1919?
A Labour led Britain needs Europe and Europe needs a new policy of positive engagement from Britain that has moved on from the half-hearted membership in which Europe was seen as a headache and a problem.
In the event of Cameron staying as prime minister, pro-Europeans should have no illusions about winning a plebiscite in 2017 to stay in Europe. With the aftermath of the political Fukushima experience in Scotland still contaminating the Westminster atmosphere for years to come, the notion that Britain can have a swift repatriation of powers and a comprehensive renegotiation sufficient to persuade the Tory-UKIP half of the country, plus the off-shore owned press, plus the many big and small businesses who have been fed anti-EU lies and propaganda for fifteen years that all is now in place for a positive Yes vote to the EU is a fiction.
There is tremendous support in Brussels and in most EU national governments to do anything to help the UK stay in the EU. But that support cannot extend to the wholescale re-writing of the Treaties or giving the UK a special à la carte status. Nor can the EU do anything about the new front the anti-Europeans have opened, namely the clamour to pull out of the European Convention on Human Rights and the Council of Europe. Given the EU is signing the ECHR to tear up that treaty obligation means also tearing up EU membership. However, saying No to Mr Cameron’s In-Out Brexit plebiscite is not enough. Labour needs to think now about what it would do about Europe when back in power.
A Labour led Britain needs Europe and Europe needs a new policy of positive engagement from Britain that has moved on from the half-hearted membership in which Europe was seen as a headache and a problem in the 3rd Labour administration after 2005 or the downright negative anti-EU line of Cameron since 2010. All of Europe is seeing the rise of populist, xenophobic politics whatever line is taken on free movement of people in the EU. To blame just that factor is to make half of the UKIP case before a debate starts.
As long as the UK had a booming economy as it did between 1997 and 2007 it attracted foreign workers as happens in every economy in the world. After 2008 crash this went into reverse but to blame European workers because Labour did not build enough social housing and Labour refused EU social rules which helped defuse some of these problem elsewhere is scapegoating of the worst sort. Those preparing for power and for what policies to adopt on Europe should focus on the future with a positive European vision.
There is now the most talented generation of Labour MEPs ever sent from Britain to the European Parliament since the first direct elections in 1979. Their talents and networks and experience must be harnessed and used. Labour should try and understand the revolution in the way the European Commission is now organised. It is now grouped in seven major clusters instead of 28 little baronies. More important, the Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker, has named a deputy president, Frans Timmermans. He is a Labour Party – PvDA – Dutch thinker first and politician second who speaks better English than most British politicians. Any policy proposal or proposed directive that Timmermans doesn’t like goes no further.
The most important priority which cuts across party political lines for the EU is to get growth going again. Since 2009, the US Federal Reserve has poured $2.5 trillon into the US economy through printing money under the euphemism of quantative easing. The Bank of Japan has done likewise injecting $2 trillion and the Bank of England has adopted a pure Keynesian policy of injecting $650 billion – a sum that the MPC member, economist Martin Wheale, reckons has added 3 per cent to the UK GDP – exactly the growth figures we are now seeing.
One of the great hypocrisies of the British right is the clamour for more and more EU single market but less and less Brussels and fewer EU directives.
A Labour Britain should be urging such Keynsian injection of money by the European Central Bank with debt rescheduling or write-offs for southern Europe before the economic despair there turns into political rejectionism.
Labour should also work in Europe for a massive re-connect between national parliaments and EU decision-making – a project close to Frans Timmermans’ thinking. Labour should welcome Jean-Claude Juncker’s declaration that there will be no enlargement of the European Union in the next 5 years and his view that this era is about consolidation. That clearly means that all the chatter about increasing the single market is on hold because without further massive transfers of national sovereignty to Brussels via rules that allow the Commission to dictate national policies on trade and competition no major increase in the single market is likely to happen.
One of the great hypocrisies of the British right is the clamour for more and more EU single market but less and less Brussels and fewer EU directives which is rather like calling for more and more sex at the same as demanding more and more virginity. There is a need for an EU energy union and a telecommunications union and to stop the US behemoths like Google crushing every start-up in the EU’s digital economy.
For ten years Labour has not known how to make the case for Europe. Europe needs to be neither over-idealised nor over-diabolised. The goal should be to make the EU like Nato – not perfect, always open to reform, but an indispensable element of the UK in the 21st century. Better Together with European nation-states than divorce and living apart.
(This article based on talk at Policy Network meeting at Labour Party Conference 22 September Manchester)
Social Europe Journal 26 Sept 2014