A Progressive Project for Europe

Can we move forward from the Manichean Europhile-Europhobe, Federalist-Sceptic, £/€ divide on the UK’s relationship with the rest of Europe’s nations?

The ultra Federal project is dead – though who actually supported it was never clear. Tony Blair’s EU policy was actually much more cautious, prudent, and defensive than many realise. As a PPS and Minister at the FCO 1997-2005 I was never aware of a specific policy decision to enter the Euro. Blair and pro-Europeans like myself were in favour of the Euro as a concept but as an MP for a steel exporting region I never thought the UK could join the Eurozone given the over-valued pound sterling. Moreover, Blair would never have risked his premiership on a Euro referendum to which Labour was committed. The pro-EU social democrats in Sweden were drained of authority and badly split after the lost Euro entry referendum of 2003.

The fight was not on Euro entry but rather between those who wished the single currency well and were positive about it and those who continually rubbished it and said it was doomed to failure. But it is a myth to say the UK Euro entry was ever a realistic policy likely to happen under Blair.

After Gordon Brown took over, the Labour Government’s EU policy went into deep sleep – symbolised by Brown’s failure to turn up to sign the Lisbon Treaty. David Miliband starred as Europe most thoughtful, dynamic Foreign Minister but Labour said No to Party of European Socialist measures on social policy, tax havens, election of the Commission President, or participation at a senior level in pan-European or global gatherings of sister parties.

But joining forces with anti-Europeans (UKIP, most Tory MPs, Daily Mail/Sun/Telegraph) to whine endlessly about EU membership, scorn the Euro as a kind of disease, or promote spurious referendums – because quitting Europe would be a disaster and a Yes vote to stay in changes nothing as the 1975 referendum here, the 2005 referendum in France, or the endless Irish Yes-No referendums show – is also dead-end politics.

Is Europe a no-go area or can it be turned into a dividing line between Labour and the Coalition? Ed Miliband scored brilliantly with his critique of Cameron’s hopeless negotiating line between the veto of December and the acceptance of everything proposed in January.

Can we build on this mocking of incompetent Toryism? Or is Labour condemned to drift back to a kind of updated 1980s style Euroscepticism-lite? By echoing the Tory and Murdoch/Rotherhmere/Telegraph press line that all problems stem from the Eurozone and Britain is a safe haven without any economic, currency, or growth challenges, Labour may actually be helping to strengthen the key themes that Cameron/Osborne/Hague  seek to establish up to 2015.

The Conservatives want to present the rest of Europe as basket case economies which only tough Tory leadership can save Britain from. In fact, Osbornomics could have been written in Brussels and is identical to the anti-growth policies of public sector wage and employment reduction, VAT rises, benefits cuts and other deflationary policies applied by Barroso, Sarkozy, Monti, Rajoy and most conservative government in Europe.

In truth, the Government, representing the most globalised elements of British capitalism, has no intention of quitting the EU and is actively discouraging its MPs from following the Cash/Carswell/Hannan line of withdrawal or a rupture type referendum. Nor, despite some of the blowhard language after Cameron’s refusal to add the UK’s name to support for work on the treaty-within-a-treaty arrangements Mrs Merkozy is driving forward, is there any desire on the continent to see Britain quit the EU.

We remain a huge importing market, our financial sector complements German industrial exports or French agro exports, luxury goods and tourism, and powerful political forces on the continent want even a recalcitrant Britain there to offset other over-strong nations. The UK’s alliance with the USA, our broad global role including membership of the P5 and our possession of nuclear weapons is important for other Europeans who do not want to have to develop strong defence profiles and do not share Gaullist hostility to America.

Cameron also has cover in the more pro-EU LibDems. But the Tories are caught in a classic political scissors trap. They need to be seen as reasonably responsible, on occasion constructive partners in the EU, especially with the Irish and less enthusiastic EU members like the Danes, Czechs and Swedes. But at home Cameron has to feed the monster of Europhobia he called into being prior to 2010.

The Tories are nervous of the 2014 European Parliament elections where UKIP will do well and there may be some anti-Government protest vote that could come Labour’s way if there is some sense amongst voters that Labour has something to say on Europe. Tory activists in the constituency parties are pretty much uniformly hostile. Like the stranglehold CND had for a short period on selection processes in Labour 30 years ago, it is impossible for a Tory wannabe to be pro-EU and get selected and even intelligent internationalist Tories have to pander to anti-European passions in their constituencies. Thus the Tories are not necessarily in a good place on Europe unless Labour decides there is net gain in (to use the banal language of political strategists) “shutting down” the issue. This would appear to be the current, if unspoken option.

Yet staring us in the face is the unhappy era of Labour’s 1980s Euroscepticism which played well at party conferences but made us look isolationist Little Brits and did not deliver votes. This is the paradox. The voters tell pollsters and phone-ins they do not like Europe. But, other than in European Parliament elections, they do not vote UKIP and no Tory leader preaching Euroscepticism (Hague, IDS, Howard and Cameron) has won a majority in an election.

Thus Euroscepticism-lite which seems the preferred Labour option at present may be doubly counterproductive. It does not convince real anti-EU voters and does not persuade the rest of the electorate who want a reasonable and responsible line on Europe.

The alternative surely is to paint the Tories as isolationist and sending out wrong global signals that Britain is now seeking a semi-detached relationship with Europe which will have political and inward investment consequences as rising powers (BRICS and others) see London as not being able to shape or direct EU policy.

Protectionism is not just controls on trade. It is a whole ideological and governmental approach to relations between states. When William Hague says the Euro is like the sunken Italian cruise liner he is not just giving in to his penchant for crude anti-European jokes. He is revealing deeper isolationist-protectionism linguistics of part of the Tory Party which really does believe the UK would be better off out.

There are rafts of new rules around the corner on banking, fiscal, financial sector, trade and tax aspects of transnational policy. Despite cracks by Hague and the rise of nationalist responses to the present economic crisis we are not going to create a beggar-my-neighbour Atlantic or global economy. The Eurozone is not going to collapse.

The Germans will come round to ECB quantitative easing (like the Fed and BoE) as their political class realises that the disappearance of the Euro will unleash intra-European protectionist retaliations and a new DeutschMark will make German exports uncompetitive.

So how can Labour take advantage of Tory difficulties and incoherence on Europe? Is there a policy project on Europe that can provide progressives in Britain with a narrative on Europe that encourages and enthuses rather than the cautious “Speak no EU, Hear no EU, See no EU” line currently being advanced as a holding policy in face of the tsunami of criticism and hostility in the media?

Here are a dozen ideas:

  • Analyze the real state of the European economy to point out that despite difficulties in southern weaker economies, it is actually Britain that is one of the sick, weak men of Europe thanks to Tory policy since May 2010. The EU is not just Greece, Italy and Portugal but also Germany, Austria, Finland, Poland, Sweden and Benelux. There are plenty of euro-zone economies which are doing much better than the UK. The Euro has not harmed them but their strengths and the reasons for their healthy growth scarcely ever get mentioned. Who would not want German and Austrian growth or unemployment rates – all demonstrably possible inside the Eurozone? The EU deficit/debt problems are no greater than USA. The real problems arise not because of EU cohesion but rather a lack of cohesion.
  • Point out that despite their hostile rhetoric, Cameron and Osborne are actually part of the Euro right-wing ideology of deflationary policies of cuts which is stifling growth and increasing unemployment – thus adding to debts and deficits. Accuse Osborne of promoting right-wing EU ideology.
  • Drop the line blaming problems on incomers. Labour has always had to deal with supporters who attribute to foreigners (Irish, Pakistanis, in an earlier time Jews) current economic problems. British workers suffered from low wages before the 2004 EU enlargement. Weak divided unions, lack of housing, and poor skills are the problem not foreigners. The German film-maker Volker Schorndorf says he wishes 1 million Poles had come to Germany not the UK after 2004. He argues they would have learnt German, gone home linked to Germany. Poles, instead of being very UK oriented and speaking English, would have got closer to Germany.
  • Elaborate a programme of EU institutional reform based on strengthening national parliaments working jointly with the European Parliament (which has less and less status) to ensure democratic oversight. This should include select committees setting up European sub-committees charged with making links with national parliamentarians to examine EU legislation before it is set in stone. The Commission must come down in size. Is there now a case for Labour to support a referendum on Turkish entry? We seem to have gone along with the idea of referendums on key areas (e.g. Scotland). The entry of Turkey into the EU would profoundly change its institutions and entail a dilution of existing UK power. Therefore on constitutional grounds Labour can reasonably propose a debate on a referendum before any Turkish entry into the EU.
  • Link up with the many European studies departments in our universities to develop research projects on how EU policy, grants, etc can help the UK. In particular work out new ways of inter-party and inter-parliamentary working to create coalitions for reform of European policy and institutions. It is no use banging on about the worthy object of CAP reform if we do not have a single partner supporting us. A Partnership Europe should be a policy objective.
  • Develop Ed Miliband’s call for an end to tax havens and tax secrecy and seek EU partners in support of this policy. This means challenging the Channel Islands, the dependent territories and the City as well as Lichtenstein, Monte Carlo (home to Sir Philip Green), Switzerland as key tax secrecy EU member states like Luxembourg and Austria.
  • Support EU social policy including a European-wide minimum wage (based on national low pay commissions) and other positive rights and call for an EU wide work permit scheme so that employers cannot employ people at rates lower than those agreed by collective agreement or custom and practice. This could be done jointly with the unions so that they feel Labour is not shutting them out completely.
  • Set up a commission to examine best practice in different EU member states. This should be done not with a view to adopting a generalised German, or Swedish system (which are the products of decades if not centuries of culture and social compromise and are not translatable in toto to the UK) but rather a specific policy or measure that could be implemented in the UK.
  • Find some good words to say on Europe. No senior Labour leader has made a convincing speech about Europe since 2007.  The right have filled this vacuum. Find words that mock and raise smiles about Tory incoherence on Europe. Being pro-European should be about style and laughter not earnest lecturing. There is much support amongst younger people for being engaged in Europe. The anti-Europeans in UKIP or amongst Tory activists and the ageing right-wing press commentariat have not changed their story since the Bruges speech of 1988. They are yesterday’s men.
  •  Work with sister parties on a bi-lateral basis as well as via the Party of European Socialists. There is a good chance that France may see a socialist President this week. This changes the balance of political trade in a right-wing run EU. A word of caution: Mitterrand’s election in 1981 did not help Labour or the SPD in the 1980s. But it should be possible to work on joint or tri-partite reports on given issues with sister parties. The Compass initiative between SPD general secretary Andrea Nahles and Jon Cruddas is a good example to follow. See The Future of Social Democracy. Building the Good Society edited by Henning Meyer and Jonathan Rutherford, Palgrave 2012, an excellent collection of essays arising from this impressive initiative.
  • Use our (admittedly very few) 13 MEPs as a resource. They have good(ish) support to research and campaign and should be treated with respect as players in Labour’s march back to power.
  • Develop a programme to train up the new intake of MPs into Europe and EU realities not the caricatures in the UK media. The Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, FEPS, other foundations and think-tanks need to be involved on a coherent, organised basis to help expose the next generation of political leaders to EU realities and politics. The 2010 intake is very high quality. But the broad culture of UK Euroscepticism, Euroindifference, and Europessimism means that few younger MPs engage seriously in European politics. In debates on Europe in the Commons no backbench MPs from the 2010, 2005 or 2001 elections take part. In political terms Labour is becoming a de-Europeanised party. This needs to change.

This column is part of the ‘Britain in Europe’ debate jointly organised by the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung London and Social Europe Journal.