Jon Worth – Changing the frame: Britain and Europe

It was a professed aim of Tony Blair to put Britain at the heart of Europe, yet after 12 years of Labour government there is little evidence this has been achieved. Indeed when looking at the headline question in Eurobarometer surveys from 1997 and 2009[1]Generally speaking, do you think that the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union is…? A good thing”, the percentage of the population answering affirmatively has dropped from 36 per cent to 29 per cent. The UK was third most hostile to the EU in 1997, ahead of Austria and Sweden in a union of 15; today the British people’s lack of fervour for Europe is behind only Latvia.

So what needs to happen now? What lessons can be learnt from Labour’s 12 years in government, and the first year of coalition, to determine what a progressive, centre-left EU policy should be for Labour into the future?

It’s not about more or less

EU ‘debate’ in the UK is conducted according to one simple and yet increasingly broken frame of reference: on which side of the pro-European or Eurosceptic divide do you stand? In simplest terms this tends to mean do you want more, or do you want less Europe? In light of this, Labour’s EU policy has generally been defined as simply being more pro-European than the Tories’ policies, a stance that has held since the downfall of Thatcher. This may have been sensible from a tactical point of view, but in terms of policy outcomes and dealing with a public opinion poisoned by a hostile and Europhobic press, it simply has to change.

Reflect a little and it becomes clear that the very definition of pro-European versus Eurosceptic is in itself wrong. The European Union legislates everything from working hours to the price of potatoes, air quality to trade tariffs. There is no simple way to define whether you want more of that entire package or less. Further, the argument proposed by separationists in the Tory party and UKIP that the UK should simply leave the European Union, distracts from the real question that should be asked: what sort of European Union do we want, and how can we get there?

The starting point for Labour in opposition is a radical overhaul of the vocabulary. Out should go any reference to pro-European or being more in favour of the EU than the Tories, and in should come references to a social Europe, a citizen’s Europe, a Europe that better meets the needs of the people in testing economic times. This would allow, for example, a stronger and more coherent critique of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and at the same time a more solid commitment to the EU assisting the deprived in our societies. In short: we should no longer simply be stodgy pro-Europeans.[2]

Any notions of patriotic pro-Europeanism, or that EU membership is in the UK’s ‘national interest’ should also be rejected. Such phrases imply that citizens need to first identify with the British state, comprehend its interests, and then the UK’s politicians will be sent into battle in Brussels. Instead a compelling case needs to be made to emphasise how the European Union is of benefit to each and every citizen, and how – with the right reforms – it could be even more beneficial for everyone in the future.

The elephant in the room: the Euro

It has not been en vogue to talk about it for a decade or so, but Labour needs to work out what its stance should be on the future of the Euro, and more importantly, the future of the eurozone. While the British press, and to a certain extent the Tory/Lib-Dem Government, have been smug and gleeful at watching some eurozone economies go into a tailspin, the predicament faced by Iceland (outside the Euro and outside the EU) was so much worse than the problems faced by Ireland, Greece and more recently Portugal, when other EU Member States came – belatedly – to their aid.

There are signs that at least the EU’s two preeminent Member States have learnt some lessons from the situation and are trying to work out ways to better coordinate fiscal policy for the eurozone.[3] The plans for economic coordination are not without their controversies, even within the eurozone itself, but it is clear that the current economic situation has exposed the asymmetry of the Euro, namely a single monetary policy but uncoordinated fiscal policies[4].

There are twin concerns for the United Kingdom as this debate develops. The first is that eurozone countries’ economies have recovered more strongly and more quickly from the economic crisis than the UK economy has done, and that this gap will widen. Secondly, one of the most likely developments in EU decision-making would be for finance ministers of the 17 eurozone members to meet separately from their 10 non-eurozone partners, potentially marginalising the UK.

Gordon Brown’s answer to the Euro question was to wield his five economic tests but here too the situation has moved on. The Euro debate is not simply about the currency itself anymore; it is instead about the political structures that will support the common currency. Labour should be strong with a commitment to join the Euro in the medium term, with a demand for a seat at the decision making table as a result.

A more inclusive European economy

The UK approach to the EU’s Single Market has been to emphasise the benefits to business and to play down, or at least not talk about the benefits for citizens, or the common standards – on maternity and paternity leave for example – that are guaranteed in the UK thanks to the EU. Further, as numerous markets are liberalised across Europe (postal services and energy markets for example), the left has no response to the prevailing centre-right, free market consensus.

Labour, and indeed the parties on the left in the rest of Europe, need to urgently address this issue, developing ideas of EU-wide employee-owned companies and even EU-wide state owned companies. Breaking national monopolies and fostering trade across borders is all very well, but transnational private sector near-monopolies are surely not any better than what we have currently.

Looking to the future it is clear that major economic change is needed in Europe over the next few decades. Perhaps the only positive EU policy from the coalition has been to push for stronger commitments for CO2 reductions from Member States, 30 per cent by 2020 as opposed to 20 per cent. This effort from Chris Huhne should be commended by Labour, and he should be urged to go further. With the EU’s budget beyond 2013 to be decided within the next two years, Labour’s position should be to advocate the wholesale greening of the budget, with relentless focus on sustainable transport, green investment, and sustainable agriculture and fisheries policies.

Europe and the world: time to take responsibility

The Tory/Lib-Dem government’s absence of EU-wide thinking has been very much in evidence in its response to revolutions in the North Africa in the first part of 2011, crises that have also exposed the fragile efforts to deliver an EU foreign policy after the ratification of the Treaty of Lisbon. A joint France – UK – Germany statement on Egypt brutally exposed the lack of a coherent EU position.[5]  Meanwhile it was robust European diplomatic activity of a distinctly French and British nature rather than EU action which secured UN Security Council Resolution 1973, authorising the military intervention in Libya, and it has been NATO that has taken command of the operation since then. EU foreign policy-making is still going through birth pangs and may yet be stillborn.

Labour has not spoken of the need for a greater EU role, in large part because the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Policy is a Labour politician, Cathy Ashton, in place largely because Peter Mandelson was not palatable and David Miliband was not persuadable. It is hence unlikely that any Labour front bencher is going to be able to be critical of EU foreign policy any time soon.

Hence the policy emphasis should be on advocating multi-lateral solutions to foreign policy questions, rather than unilateral or bilateral approaches. This approach, pursued through the EU, is consistent with Labour’s traditional commitment to multilateral foreign policy. It is vital that the European Union assumes geopolitical responsibility for its near neighbourhood – North Africa and the Middle East at the very least – and Labour should not hesitate to say so. Looking further to the future it is clear that military procurement should progressively be pooled EU-wide, avoiding the EU’s present predicament of 27 small and ineffective armies.

Avoiding the detour towards direct democracy 

All of the ideas so far outlined in this piece are hard to achieve. They require considerable thought, time engagement and public awareness raising.

As a result there is of course the danger that Labour’s EU policy in opposition could veer towards short-term advantage, rather than dealing the complex questions of the UK’s relationship with the European Union. One such detour would be to make a call for a referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union (in or out) a core plank of the party’s EU policy.[6] The Tories would be split, so let’s split them further, is the argument most often used in favour of this plan.

To advocate such a referendum would be a major mistake. Crucially it would only succeed in demonstrating a dearth of other EU policies from Labour – if in doubt just ask the people. The referendum itself would also be fought in the pro-European vs. Eurosceptic frame, precisely the way of looking at the European Union that has been cautioned against above. Lastly such a referendum would not answer the question of the UK’s relationship with the European Union as its proponents claim, for the EU is an ever changing political and economic amalgam.

Labour’s emphasis instead should be to push for further democratisation of the European Union. It is not in the interests of the party, or any European citizen, for a retreat towards inter-governmentalism to take place. In a globalised world with Europe in relative retreat, now is not the time to further hamper our prospects for future action by emphasising the role of the states in the European construction.

In stark contrast to other international organisations such as NATO or the WTO the EU does have a democratic institution – the European Parliament – and the further democratisation and party-politicisation of the EU should be supported by Labour. Public support for the EU can only be achieved if people believe they have some control over it.

At the very least Labour should support ideas currently being debated in the Party of European Socialists (PES) that the left should put forward a single candidate for President of the European Commission prior to the next European Parliament elections in 2014. The idea is that if the left were to emerge victorious at the elections then the head of the EU’s executive branch would come from the major political force in its legislature.

Conclusion – much to do, but if not now, when?

As this short article has argued, the challenges for Labour to overcome are numerous and complex, and require thinking and communication that are radically different from anything seen from the party in its EU policies in the last decade or more. Yet with the left in a weak position across Europe, some time for Labour to develop new approaches before the electoral challenges of 2014 (European Parliament) and 2015 (General Election), and the future of Europe’s economy and role in the world very much at stake, now is not the time to be timid. There is much to do, but if not now, then when will Labour ever be in a position to develop a coherent, forward looking and progressive EU policy?


Article image by ntr23

[4] For more on this see Krugman in the New York Times

[6] Sunder Katwala of the Fabian Society has written more on this


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