As a pro-European following the recent televised debates on the EU, it was hard to know whether to sympathise or despair at the sight of a desperately unpopular deputy prime minister trying to hold onto a pro-European argument while repeatedly having to fall back on the coalition’s scripts on immigration and foreign policy. Probably the only crumb of comfort for the beleaguered Mr Clegg was the fact that snap polls rated his performance at something between 20 and 30 per cent, several times higher than his party has been polling in recent months.
But if one wing of the coalition at least recognises that Britain’s best interest is to stay in the EU, what about the other? The position that Cameron has developed to hold his badly divided party together, amounts to a strategy of double blackmail.
First, they hope to bully our European partners into swallowing their demands, by threatening British exit if they refuse. The sort of “reforms” the Conservatives want – loosening, repealing or opting out of the common rules for the common market that protect workers and consumers – could not be achieved by any other means.
Even with the threat of Brexit, there’s a good chance that it won’t work. But if it does, the second blackmail would then be on the British people. They would be offered a choice between his new arrangement — cut-throat competition, a race to the bottom in standards, and no protection for either workers or consumers — or the economic disaster of complete withdrawal from the Union. The status quo would not be on offer. Nor would a different set of reforms. It would be Cameron’s Europe or no Europe.
Labour is right to have no truck with this. The whole idea is misconceived in its objectives, threatens Britain’s economic recovery and could jeopardise our influence in the world. The uncertainty created by suggesting that Britain might, in a few years’ time, no longer be a member of the world’s largest market is already potentially damaging to inward investment. It has not yet been dramatic, because most potential investors don’t believe that a Tory government post-2015 is likely. But if Ed Miliband had matched the pledge to hold a referendum, the uncertainty that would have created would harm inward investment right now.
It’s not that Labour thinks all is perfect in the EU. But reform in Europe is not a one-off, it is a constant process. The EU is a non-stop negotiation among neighbouring countries on issues on which we are interdependent or where we can gain from a common approach. Nowadays, most EU legislation is about revising, renewing or repealing existing EU legislation. Reform opportunities are there for those who want to engage.
Such reforms to policies do not require changes to the treaties. There are in any case no proposals on the table to change the EU treaties in a way that would transfer any further responsibilities from national level to European level as far as Britain is concerned (though there is a debate among Eurozone countries about whether they might do more together to manage their currency, but that would not involve Britain). Should such proposals arise one day, Ed Miliband has conceded that that could warrant a referendum. But this isn’t really very likely in the foreseeable future. In general, the EU now has broadly the field of competence that most member states agree it should have.
Today, the real arguments are more about how we exercise existing European-level responsibilities, and the policy choices we make. And this is why it’s so important that Labour wins strong representation in the European Parliament next month. While UKIP wants Britain to leave and the Tories want us to go half way out, it falls to Labour to make the case for improving our Union, not by hurtling off at a tangent, but by rolling up our sleeves and engaging fully.