The case for a pro-EU Labour Party

January 18, 2013 9:53 am

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.

  • JoblessDave

    If this is the strongest case to be made pro-EU, then we may be in trouble.

    Quote: “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.”

    Frankly this is too simplistic, and consequently fails the litmus test of plausibility. Even relatively neutral observers will have noted that each of Greece, Italy and increasingly Spain and Portugal are suffering from the impact of some of their EU commitments, most notably the lack of safeguards or ability to simply revalue their currency (and consequently their national debt) within the Euro currency.

    So a fairer analysis might be as follows:

    Economic:
    +some efficiencies of scale, providing EU structures are not replicated at national level
    -significant loss of direct control over national macroeconomic levers – this is quite a major point, and in a environment where all nations are pro-cyclical (i.e. all suffer recessions at the same time) we will need to note that this will have a self-reinforcing effect on our national economy

    Military:
    +significant efficiencies of scale (once again providing EU structures are not replicated nationally)
    -potential danger of national view being subordinated to consensus view (what is the EU view on defending the Falklands, for example?)

    Trade:
    +massive benefits as part of a trade bloc in negotiations e.g. with China
    -while relatively minor, it should be noted there are some slightly odd drawbacks where EU protectionism damages trade, particularly in butter, sugar and bananas (Google “controversial EU protectionism in the Carribbean” for examples where a French-led EU approach has been condemned by the WTO, and is actively to the detriment of EU consumers)

    Foreign policy:
    +Bigger = better in diplomatic terms…
    -…unless the rest of the room disagrees with your national stance.

    On balance we may therefore agree that in Europe is better than outside, but this is not a binary choice, and to present it as such is disrespectful of the intelligence of the public.

    There is a wider point too, and one that in the UK we seem to bury our head in the sand with regard to, which is the point of “ever closer unification”: the broad political consensus of the UK appears to be, on average, that where we are is just about ok – most recent governments seem to have wanted to ease slightly closer to Europe, but most voters seem to want to either retain the status quo or move slightly further away, and this uneasy equilibrium seems to paralyse further discussion, and so what ends up driving the debate is the inexorable movements of EU machinery towards their stated goal of unification: consequently we are collectively on an escalator without having agreed the end point, and that is the recipe for the ongoing disasters we witness.

    My final point is one of concern: while it may be entertaining to watch the Tories tear themselves apart on the issue, it is profoundly depressing to sense that PLP policy on what could easily be the most significant aspect of our political climate is based on the political opportunism of having the other side fight it out. We need to debate the points above, and no doubt add others, and then present our position with confidence to the public: that is how we will prove ourselves ready to govern in 2015.

  • Martinay

    David Talbot writes that the post -war rationale for a European community “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.”

    I don’t agree.

    The first bit of community history was the European Coal and Steel Community (six nations) where economics – not security – is right there in the title. Yes, security has been an issue but let’s not forget that the aim was not just to prevent a war between nations within the ECSC, EEC and the EU but it was also to present a united front to communism.

    The EU today reveals a contest between neo-liberalism and post neo-liberalism (exemplified respectively by German CDU ‘austerity’ versus European Commission ‘innovation and growth’ agendas). So David is giving too rosy a picture by suggesting the EU is all about ‘collaboration and economic prosperity': the EU is a battleground. A battleground for greater democracy and for responsible capitalism within a responsible society. A bettleground where the combatants (except for left romantics in Greece and right romantics in the UK) know that, despite their differences , they can eventually achieve more together.

  • Andrew Ben McKay

    The issue of the EU is like Immigration. Labour could and should be making a positive case for it. Instead, the party seems obsessed (as Brown’s gov. was) with pleasing the right wing press and bowing to bigots.

    Why can’t Labour be a proper pro-immigration, pro-EU Labour party?

  • Redshift1

    Quite frankly, I’m sick of seeing the EU debate stuck on a ‘pro or anti’ record.

    There are great benefits but there are also quite glaring problems.

    For me the only credible position on the EU has to be critical but accepting of the fact we’re part of it.

    We need to criticise and outright refuse to go along with some of the directives on privatisation and contracting – other EU states do. The EU cannot be about free market dogma if we’re going to support it as a party. Bombardier is one example, the privatisation of Royal Mail another. Sod off should be the straight forward answer. We need to join up with our sister parties and put forward the jobs and growth argument over austerity.

    We need to constantly criticise some of the democratic arrangements – and no, I don’t mean just reopening the neverending debate about Strasbourg. Put simply the commission is undemocratic and should be abolished. The parliament should have more power – or it will just remain an organ of protest voting when it comes to Euro-elections.

    I want to talk to people about workers rights, consumer rights, etc during an EU election, not just get into an argument about whether Brussels is bureaucratic or not. We must reshape the debate.

  • http://twitter.com/desmondotoole Desmond O’Toole

    It’s worth pointing out that the stronger argument for many of us is not the super-nationalist one that our country is stronger being part of Europe but the Left argument that is offered by our European political family (pes.eu ; feps-europe.eu and socialistsanddemocrats.eu respectively the party, think tank and parliamentary party of our European family). This is an argument that says that sustainable economic prosperity and social justice cannot be delivered within the primary context of nation-states given the strength and mobility of global capital and the challenges posed by climate change, migration and security. A supra-national, democratic political and economic union with the scale to defend the European social model is essential. This is the core of the Left argument for Europe. For too long British comrades have been absent from the debates that take place within the Party of European Socialists or their voices have been drowned out by the knee-jerk xenophobia of the likes of UKIP, the Tories and even some within the British Labour movement. Britain at the heart of Europe means UK Labour engaging far more at the European level … do that and we will have a stronger chance of establishing a progressive Europe that puts people first before markets.

    Desmond O’Toole
    PES activists Dublin

  • mhjames

    ‘Of course, the EU needs substantial reform.’ Come on then, what reform? And what chance is there of achieving it? At some point you’re going to have actually have to join the debate.

  • robertcp

    The EU probably bores most British people but I am sure that they will vote to stay in if we have a referendum. Labour should continue to follow the pro-European but pragmatic line of Labour Governments since the 1960s and the Labour Party itself since the late 1980s. The best examples of Labour pragmatism on Europe were winning the referendum in 1975 and not joining the Euro.

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