Reform in Europe, not exit from Europe – that is Labour’s message

22nd February, 2013 1:34 pm

Returning from my visit with Ed Miliband to meet centre-left leaders in Denmark, Sweden, and the Netherlands this week, I’m struck by how strong Labour’s bonds are with important European allies.

Our meetings with Danish PM Helle Thorning-Schmidt, Dutch Labour Leader Diederik Samson, and Sweden’s Social Democrat Leader Stefan Löfven all underlined the importance for Labour of maintaining close and warm relations with our sister parties across Europe.

There is real and significant goodwill from the leaders we met towards both Labour and towards the UK.

And whilst they might not be as novel to some observers as the growing economies of China, Brazil, or India, there are actually important insights Britain can learn from our northern European allies.

We face common challenges as centre-left parties in a continent that feels uncertain and unclear about its future, in a way not seen for a generation.

The task of defining a positive and electorally successful response to Europe’s crisis is work underway in Denmark and the Netherlands where our sister parties are actually in power, albeit in coalition.

Across Europe, the Right’s response to the financial crisis and towards the EU itself has been to argue for collective austerity. This hasn’t simply had fiscal consequences it has also affected the confidence of businesses, consumers, and investors in the economies of Europe at a time when confidence is a scarce commodity.

The Left’s response needn’t be, indeed won’t be identical across borders, but there are insights we can share which meet the challenge of defining a common approach to Europe’s economic woes.

In Denmark we heard about PM Thorning-Schmidt’s desire to take tough decisions now in order to keep Denmark’s economy and social model safe for future generations. Laying the ground work for further progress when the economic gloom has passed.

Perhaps the subject of the final meeting of our trip at the Dutch think-tank the Wiardi Beckman Foundation best summed-up a challenge we all share in common: ‘Social Democracy when there’s less money around’.

But it’s not just attitudes and approaches that can be shared. There are also areas which provide a source of inspiration on policy as well as politics.

From childcare support in Denmark, to innovation hubs in Sweden, we can share policies that have worked. If progressive reforms can improve equity, efficiency or levels of service in Denmark and Sweden, why not consider them in Britain?

Of course the optimism of our conversations was also accompanied by concern and uncertainty from our European friends, caused by the Prime Minister’s speech on an in/out referendum on Britain’s EU membership.

The changes and reforms the EU must make are no less pressing today than they were when David Cameron made his speech last month and announced his plans to hold a referendum in 2017.

However, he has misread and misjudged the appetite of key partners in Europe to allow his party-handling exercise to distract them from their necessary focus on Europe’s economic health.

So where Labour can build alliances in Europe, we should. And where there is a common cause with like-minded allies to reform and improve the EU, we should be working for that change.

But with the backdrop of Cameron’s referendum, this also means we have to remind our neighbours that Labour sees Britain’s role at the heart of Europe, not at its periphery.

Reform in Europe, not exit from Europe – that is Labour’s message: And it was a message received with relief and support from those who Ed and I met this week.

Douglas Alexander is the Shadow Foreign Secretary

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