Yesterday we were supposed to have the big speech on Europe from David Cameron. It was originally scheduled for next week and then under pressure from business leaders and our partners in the EU, it was brought forward to today. And now – for understandable reasons – it’s been postponed.
This reflects the uncertainty and lack of leadership that has defined Conservative Party policy on our relationship with the EU. Will we have a referendum? Will a protracted campaign deter investment? What choice will a referendum offer us? Vince Cable this week says a referendum would be a dangerous sleepwalk to a “Brexit”. In short, it’s a euroshambles.
Thankfully, Labour has moved to spell out its approach to Europe. On Thursday, in a speech at Chatham House, Douglas Alexander has given a clear commitment that a Labour Government would represent the “national interest” in its dealings with the EU.
Mr Alexander said: “We have a Prime Minister who simply cannot reconcile he demands of his party with the needs of his country”. That won’t be the case for a Labour Government. That’s because Labour understands the realpolitik of both being in the EU and taking a leadership position – and the benefits that can bring the UK.
Ideological hostility to the EU is becoming more mainstream in the Conservative Party – so is opportunistic hostility – as a result of fears over a UKIP challenge at the next general election.
It’s something of a relief to hear that Douglas Alexander will not fall into the opportunistic trap. This for me is the measure of Douglas Alexander as a national politician. He could have trumped David Cameron today by calling for a referendum – albeit one that offers a real choice rather than the false choice that the Conservatives are likely to offer (either out or a membership where we are stripped of employment and environmental protections – and which in any case is unlikely to be accepted by our 26 EU partners ).
Labour seems more comfortable than it has been for a long time about its position on Europe. Just because David Cameron shys away from upsetting hardline Eurosceptics who are making all the noise at the moment, it doesn’t mean that Ed Miliband should too. As a One Nation party that sees the benefits of EU membership for our national interest, we have a responsibility for making the case.
For pro-Europeans in the Labour Party like me, Douglas Alexander’s speech is music to our ears. Not only is it unapologetically pro-European but it is also hard-headed about what it wants from the EU for hard-working families in he UK.
There are some eurofederalists in our party that think we should simply make a European case for our membership. This is wrong. We should make a One Nation case.
That’s why Douglas Alexander is right to say he wants to address people’s concerns over things like the Agency Workers Directive and the Posting of Workers Directive. David Cameron simply wants to dump any employment protection measures at the earliest possible opportunity. Make no mistake that’s what the Conservative policy on re-negotiation is all about.
Similarly, we need to take a One Nation approach to free movement of workers. Next year, restrictions on Bulgarians and Romanians working in the UK will be lifted. While there are already tough EU restrictions on welfare benefits for non-UK Europeans, the Labour Party’s policy review needs to take a close look at our labour market requirements and address the wider issue of free movement of workers accordingly.
This is the right way to approach the European Union. It is based on a hard-headed assessment of our national interests and our party’s values. As long as we take a One Nation approach we have nothing to fear from hard-line eurosceptics in UKIP or elsewhere.
Kevin Doran is a Member of the Future of Europe Forum