In his speech at the Labour party conference in September 2014, Ed Miliband said:
Better together, across the United Kingdom. But also better together, true to our traditions of internationalism. And nowhere is this more true than when it comes to Europe and the European Union. Friends, let me say plainly: our future lies in the European Union.
We need to reform Europe. We need to reform Europe on the economy, on immigration, on benefits, on all of these big issues. But here is the question for Britain. How do we reform Europe? Do we reform Europe by building alliances or by burning alliances? … If you want to reform Europe. If you want to change the way Europe works. If you want to keep Britain in the European Union and if you realise that the biggest threat to our prosperity is now the Conservative party, the right answer is a Labour government.
But is this convincing? What more is needed to make it plausible? What are the risks?
In the recent elections for the European parliament, Labour presented little evidence of Miliband’s commitment to Europe, or of the details it would want to renegotiate, or how it would deal with the threats from changes to European law that would follow if Angela Merkel and David Cameron try to bind it to an even more neo-liberal agenda. Is Miliband supportive of EU legislation that requires parts of the NHS to be put out to tender? Or makes it difficult for a Labour government to renationalise the railways or energy companies? Labour’s silence on the TTIP is also deafening.
For the EU has always been a liberal project, with the rough edges rounded by commitments to social policy designed to assist those who otherwise cannot compete, derived in the first instance from the formulations of Roman Catholic social theology that underpinned the ideologies of Christian Democrat parties in Germany and elsewhere. A single market, in which large companies compete with small, with as few restrictions as possible. A belief in subsidiarity in which the state only intervenes when the family and village or suburb cannot. Help to bring those with disadvantages into the labour market. Commitments to fair working conditions, health and safety, and the free movement of labour (all of which benefit Britain, and enable Britons to live and work in Germany or Spain, Slovenia or Greece, with minimum bureaucratic interventions) are ultimately designed to complete a very large free market where companies can compete on more or less equal terms. Of course, for many, that can only be achieved if the member countries have more or less the same tax regimes, monetary policies and social welfare guarantees – but for the UK, Ed Balls for one completely rules that out.
Europe has often received a bad press precisely because it attempts to introduce consumer-friendly policies and regulations – which are opposed by bankers, climate change deniers, international companies that trade across borders and want to minimise their payments of tax, or to make money by taking risks with the safety of food. If Britain came out of the EU the biggest gainers would be the bankers, who would set up London as a tax haven, assisting international companies to minimise their tax payments worldwide. The biggest losers would be manufacturing industry, in the Midlands and North of England (and, let it be said, Scotland).
A referendum on Europe could be a very dangerous creature, especially towards the end of the first five-year term of a new Labour government. The Scottish referendum shows how it can unite groups with all sorts of different grievances against the status quo. It created unholy alliances, such as Cameron with Miliband against the SNP. If such a referendum was lost, as it easily could be, Labour would be fundamentally committed to coming out of Europe. It might then forget about any other legislation for the rest of that parliament, and would be very unlikely to win the following election. As things stand, if changes that entrench the liberal agenda are approved by the Commission, a Labour government would find itself under huge pressure to hold such a referendum, with some support for this from within its own ranks. Does Labour really want to commit itself to a referendum in such circumstances? Is this really in the interests of UNITE and other trade unions?
Labour’s strategy, for at least the last 20 years, has been to avoid discussion of the merits or demerits of Europe in elections to the European parliament as well as in domestic politics. Candidates in the recent elections for the European parliament were expected to treat it as an opportunity to contact voters in seats that are marginal in Westminster constituencies – not to argue the case for Europe or a Labour vision of what a reformed Europe would resemble. Labour has sent inexperienced representatives to summit meetings of the Party of European Socialists, and shown little understanding of the importance of developing contacts and goodwill with other centre-left party leaders as a prelude to winning amendments to legislation, or to influence the Commission when it comes to power. This has left the field open to UKIP, Tory and other eurosceptics, bankers, civil servants, and wildly unrepresentative libertarian social thinkers.
So where should Labour be?
- It should promote the benefits of a true level playing field – and of regulations that root out cowboys, crooks, money launderers, tax avoiders, climate change deniers, and so on.
- It should oppose “euro-austerity” in the same strong terms that it opposes Tory austerity, and ally with those in France, Italy, Spain, and other countries who are pressing Angela Merkel for more expansionary economic policies.
- It should support manufacturing across Europe in every way possible, including ensuring that all companies commit to training and support research and development.
- It should campaign for sustainable jobs, and jobs in industries that are created by the fight to reduce climate change and its impacts.
- Its conditions for approving increases in European budgets should include independent inspectorates to ensure that all countries play by the rules.
- It should recognise that domestic policies are affected by Europe, not least immigration, but also crime, trading standards, environment, agriculture, energy, etc.
- It should support banking policies that discourage speculation, such as the Tobin Tax.
- It should lead other centre-left parties in and out of government in calling for an EU-wide minimum wage.
- Above all it should recognise that the biggest enemy is inequality, and that if it continues to spread an underclass deprived of the benefits of modern technology will be permanently dissatisfied and unable to contribute to growth. The work of Williamson and Pickett shows that such policies will increase growth, while also requiring increased taxation of the rich.
All this amounts to creating and defending a centre left position on Europe, and a more pro-active response to inequality, poverty, discrimination and a narrow-minded nationalism. Is the Labour Party going to try and shape the debate or Europe? Or just respond to events?
Robert Ladrech is Professor of European Politics at Keele University where his research focuses on the relationship between party politics and European integration, with a particular interest in social democratic parties.
Andrew Coulson email@example.com is a retired lecturer in the School of Government and Society at Birmingham University and Chair of Birmingham Fabian Society.
This essay is based on a presentation to Birmingham Fabian Society on 1 October 2014