What’s Labour’s answer to the Tories’ likely election – renegotiate – referendum on the EU approach?

So William Hague has launched the FCO review of the competences of the EU (essentially, an examination of the powers the EU has an how they are used).

It’s no surprise that just a few days earlier the EU Fresh Start group of Tory MEPs released its 200+ page PDF ‘Green Paper’ that is a first stab at examining the very same issue. Once you get beyond the nationalist rhetoric at the start the document is actually a reasonably forensic effort to work out what demands a future Tory government could make if the party is serious about demanding the repatriation of powers from the EU to the UK.

The alarm bells for any Labour-leaning reader start on page 119 with the section entitled “Social and employment law” – essentially an all out assault on the Working Time Directive and Temporary and Agency Work Directive.

Why does this matter to Labour?

It seems to me that the Tories are lining up an election – repatriate – referendum strategy, promising a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU in their 2015 election manifesto but with a commitment to repatriate powers first, increasing the chances of a vote to stay in the EU. Social and employment law (along with some Justice & Home Affairs and Financial Services legislation) would be top of the Tories’ shopping list.

This poses a dual challenge for Labour.

If Labour were to reject the repatriation call it puts the party at odds with public opinion (as neatly summed up by Peter Kellner), while if it welcomes power return then the repatriation debate will focus on the very aspects of EU law that are vital to progressives – employment and social protection, even if Labour’s own record on this was far from stellar in government.

This then makes Labour’s position about whether to call for a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU very complicated. While I personally remain resolutely opposed to the idea of holding a referendum on this issue, even I must acknowledge the chance such a vote will be held are increasing, especially with grandees such as Peter Mandelson calling for it.

In short: if Labour proposes a straight in-out vote, the party would be trumped by the Tories playing their renegotiate card. Yet if Labour countenances renegotiation some of the most progressive aspects of EU law would be the ones called into question.

This difficulty is perhaps the reason why senior Labour MEP David Martin has called on the European Commission to undertake its own report to countenance Hague’s FCO review – Labour does not even look like it knows where to start when it comes to dealing with the Tories’ EU policies just now. The danger is the longer Labour keeps silent, the more the UK-EU debate is dominated by a right wing agenda. Ultimately Labour is playing with fire.

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