Even though there is a living standards crisis in this country, the Conservative Party will once again return to their obsession with Europe this month as the Commons debates the Tory backbench EU Referendum Bill.
Among voters it’s clear that jobs, economic growth and rising living standards should be the priority both for Britain and for the European Union. It is with these objectives in mind that Labour is determined to champion both the case for our membership of the European Union and the case for reform.
The Conservative Party has a history of being on the wrong side of the argument on Europe.
In 1992 they voted to enshrine the unnecessary Strasbourg sessions of the European Parliament with an annual cost to the taxpayer of £100million, in return for Britain’s opt out of the Social Chapter.
More recently George Osborne’s priority in Europe has been defending rising bankers’ bonuses whilst Tory MEPs sided with the big tobacco firms rather than the cancer charities and voted to allow damaging cigarette products to stay on the market.
It has been clear for some time now that David Cameron’s priority for change in Europe is less about bringing powers home, and more about taking rights away. He’d scrap the basic rights that British people enjoy in the workplace and enshrined in the European Social Chapter: maternity and paternity rights, 4 weeks paid holiday, protection for pregnant employees to name but a few. It’s his determination to roll back these basic rights that is just one of many reasons why David Cameron cannot be trusted to make the right judgments on Europe. Taking away these rights for British workers would create ‘a race to the bottom’.
Labour takes a different starting point to David Cameron. We believe that Europe’s institutions and policy agenda need to change, but in order to deliver more for hardworking families in the UK. For example, it’s in employment where with the right reforms even more potential exists for British workers.
Over 3 million jobs in the UK are dependent on our membership of the European Union. The combination of access to the UK market and routes into to other European markets is a major part of why companies as diverse as Vodafone, Hitachi, Nissan, Honda, and BMW have invested in the UK.
Making it easier for more British companies to benefit from the opportunities of trade with our nearest allies by extending and completing the single market will be a key part of our reform agenda to create more jobs and better opportunities for the British people.
But reform must also extend to how the European Union operates and how much it costs to run. Rightly, Labour’s MEPs and MPs voted for a reduction in the EU’s budget and we will champion further reforms to how Brussels allocates its funding.
We want for example a further reduction in the proportion of Europe’s budget that is spent on the Common Agricultural Policy and for more priority to be placed on encouraging research, innovation and support for the next generation of British and European entrepreneurs; across all countries but particularly in areas of deprivation and poverty.
We want to see reforms too to the European Commission with a Commissioner for Growth to champion recovery across the European economy and lifting the living standards of the majority not just the fortunate. We want such a Commissioner reinforced by a new body to audit the impact of EU legislation on Growth and Jobs.
We also need reform of the Free Movement Directive. We should look again at how transitional arrangements for EU accession countries can provide more flexibility for countries feeling under pressure from increased migration flows. In addition the collection of data on the number of people moving between member states is one vital new step needed to manage immigration more effectively.
But the stand-out feature of the debate about Europe at the moment is David Cameron’s weakness within his own Party.
Europe is no longer for this Conservative Party Leader a judgment about what is best for the national interest. Instead it has become a challenge about how to manage his rebellious backbenchers. His decision to announce an arbitrary timeline for holding a referendum in 2017 owes more to divisions within the Conservative Party exacerbated by the fear of Tory MPs about UKIP’s assault on their electoral fortunes, than to a timetable for a major renegotiation of our relationship to the European Union.
Indeed Cameron’s MPs and MEPs know this and their distrust of Cameron’s motives has led Adam Afriyie to issue a direct challenge to the Prime Minister by calling for an earlier referendum.
William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, has previously spoken rightly of the additional economic uncertainty that a referendum on an arbitrary timeline would create and at a time when the economy is fragile.
The grim prospect of Britain sleepwalking towards exit from the European Union remains however a very real possibility.
An internationally isolated Britain would be one not just at an economic disadvantage but also one that was more vulnerable to international criminal activity; co-operation with other European police forces and criminal justice agencies would slow and the cross-border co-operation that helps tackle human trafficking and that secured the arrest of one of the terrorists responsible for the 7/7 attacks in London would be put at risk.
Being an active participant in Europe increases Britain’s ability to take a leading role in tackling the world’s great challenges: climate change, preventing terrorism and the search for peace and security in the Middle East. Indeed, as one of the leading countries in the largest economy in the world, Britain in the EU has a greater chance to make progress in achieving our ambitions for the future.
But in the end it is the jobs of our friends and neighbours and the life chances of those at school and university now that would be dramatically affected if a vote to leave the European took place.
Today’s report from the CBI shows that Europe brings each UK household £3000 a year. David Cameron is willing to put this at risk because his approach to Europe is based on narrow party interest, not Britain’s national interest.
As Martin Baker of Rowan Precision said recently:
“Limited or restricted access to the EU’s single market would be an impediment to growth, job creation and innovation for the UK economy. Businesses would be stung if access to Europe’s common market of 500 million customers – our biggest market and destination to 50% of British exports dried up.”
David Cameron is putting his own Party political priorities before the national interest, and we will not follow such a course.
Labour will prioritise jobs and growth, making the case for co-operation with our allies across Europe that’s in our national economic and strategic interests.
Working alongside Ed Miliband and Douglas Alexander, as Labour’s new Shadow Minister for Europe, a reformed Europe that works to secure jobs, higher standards of living and better opportunities for the British people will be my priority.
Gareth Thomas is the Shadow Europe Minister