At this moment in the European Union’s history, the UK is uniquely situated to shape the future direction of Europe, and yet this appears to be unnoticed in the world of Westminster politics. This is a paradox which demands explanation. Rarely has there been a clear case for stronger European cooperation with regard to the multiple challenges presented by globalisation. However, policy solutions and ideological narratives offered by British policy-makers appear isolated from the European context.
Europe has changed radically in recent years. First, the accession of ten new member states in May 2004 has made the internal dynamics of the EU profoundly different to previous decades when EU integration was almost exclusively driven by Franco-German collaboration. Second, failed referendums in France and the Netherlands, as well as more sceptical attitudes in other continental EU member states, have revealed the decline of a ‘natural pro-Europeanism’ that gave momentum to the European project from the very beginning.
At the same time, the challenges of the 21st century increasingly demand trans-national cooperation and action, whether it is developing Europe’s competitiveness in an era of increased trade and competition, projecting the influence of EU member states in an increasingly multipolar world order, or combating international crime and terrorism. In short, the new case is about enabling the EU’s member states to meet the challenges of globalisation, while embedding social justice and opportunity for all. Given this, Gordon Brown will be presented with a major opportunity to bring Europe back to the top of the agenda. There are two reasons why this is so.
First, while the Single Market and the EU economic agenda are still important, the new challenges require an even stronger political union. For instance, a coherent strategy to tackle climate change and address the changing geopolitics of resources and energy supplies must acknowledge a pivotal role for Europe. Britain on its own within the international community will achieve very little.
Indeed, a recent Eurobarometer survey on attitudes to the EU in the UK shows growing support for Europe to prioritise the social and environmental agenda. A majority of UK citizens also believe that working conditions in the UK are better due to EU membership, recognising the benefits of the EU Social Chapter despite its need for reform. As Prime Minister, Brown should take this seriously, advancing the Hampton Court agenda in Europe by championing a ‘social’ Europe alongside a ‘global’ Europe. This combines flexibility with fairness, promotes social partnership and dialogue, establishes minimum employment rights and combats all forms of discrimination.
Second, bringing Europe back on to the agenda has an important domestic political advantage. The Conservative Party faces a real dilemma in defining a coherent and consistent approach to the EU. David Cameron’s announcement of the withdrawal of Tory MEPs from the centre-right European People’s Party clearly exposed this. His decision isolated the Conservative leadership from all other major European leaders, completely sidelining the Tories from the European debate. Whereas Cameron increasingly appears as an irrational dogmatist who is unable to adopt a pragmatic approach, Gordon Brown can portray himself as a serious and statesmanlike figure who appreciates how to reconcile the British national interest with active engagement at the European level.
A determined and open debate about the UK’s place within the European Union can drive a wedge into the centre ground of British politics and the Conservative Party. A majority of swing voters are likely to feel alienated from Cameron’s ideological obsession with European affairs, seriously questioning his bid to define himself as a moderate and centrist leader.
Under Gordon Brown, the UK has a real chance of moving closer to Europe without giving up its close partnership with the US. On a number of issues, including development aid and a new multilateral agreement to reduce carbon emissions, the Labour government’s position is more aligned with its European allies than the current US administration. As Prime Minister, Brown ought to acknowledge the pivotal importance of Europe in an era of globalisation, setting out a new, stronger case for Europe in the 21st century. His first 100 days will show Britain and the rest of Europe whether he can deliver.
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
Our work depends on you.