The debate over Britain’s place within the European Union has long threatened to boil over. After six months of repeated postponements, the British people were eventually told that our prime minister wanted to deliver his flagship oration on Europe in the Netherlands today. In it, Cameron was to detail how he would renegotiate Britain’s relationship with the EU, before embarking upon a promised referendum. But, with the cancellation of the Prime Minister’s much anticipated speech, the rhetoric can now simmer. Britain has long been a reluctant European and the nation risks, as Ed Miliband has rightly warned, of “sleepwalking” out of the EU. But, to borrow a phrase, now is not the time for sound bites. Those who believe that the nation’s best interests are best served by remaining in a strong, stable Europe must now speak up.
One thing can be sure of the current situation; it falls to Labour to keep making the pro-European case. Vast swathes of the supposedly modern, compassionate Conservative Party hold views of such visceral nationalism and rampant Euro-scepticism that it poses more of a threat to our continued membership of the EU than at any time since we joined in 1973. Too often the debate is drenched in barely disguised xenophobia, bordering on outright bigotry, with a Conservative Cabinet member talking of “wanting his country back”. The EU is forever chastised as a foreign power hostile to British interests, led by the French and Germans who delight in outflanking us. The framing is one of combat, of ‘them versus us’ and of a seemingly never-ending self-pitying desire to see ourselves as the victim. We are, truly, the awkward partner of Europe.
Britain no longer in Europe is a very real possibility. But there is nothing splendid about isolation. Labour should be proud to argue in favour of Britain’s membership of the EU, and continue to believe it is central to the national interest. The case for Britain in the EU, so often forgotten in the bile that predominates the debate, is really very simple; economically, militarily, in trade, in foreign policy and in brutal power we are stronger when we are at the heart of Europe.
The Eurosceptics too often hark back to a glorious past, of Britain as how they perceive it used to be. But Europe has evolved since its first tentative steps in the post war-ravaged years. Then the rationale was very clearly security, now it is one of collaboration and economic prosperity, of recognising in a global village nation states can achieve more together than they can alone. With power rising from the West to the East, of China dominating the 21st century much as the US dominated the last, of Brazil just overtaking Britain as the world’s sixth largest economy, the challenges and threats of globalisation and climate change, and of US firm but polite warning, we need a Labour party fully committed to retaining and enhancing our position at the heart of Europe.
To sacrifice that, to reduce our position to that of almost no influence and few friends with only one certainty: that having made the decision to depart, it would be all but impossible to return, would be unforgivably folly.
The temptation for Labour to continue to torment the prime minister by making opportunistic alliances with Conservative eurosceptics, as it did over the European budget vote last November, will often be too much to resist. But at least the Conservative leader is on record repeatedly stating his desire for a Britain very much in the EU, much, no doubt, to the chagrin of his backbenchers. But if and when the crux of the debate comes, a referendum, Labour must say loud and clear that to pander to predominantly Conservative reactionaries on Europe, who have spent their entire political lives baying for Europe, would be a betrayal of the national interest and beneath the office of the prime minister.
Britain sat aside in the 1950s as Germany, France, Italy and the Benelux countries forged a new Europe. We eventually joined, on the third attempt, having been vetoed by our French allies, in 1973, largely because we recognised our future was with Europe. Of course, the EU needs substantial reform. None but the most ardent Europhile would dismiss that. But when the debate comes, if Labour doesn’t fight for Europe – few will.