I was astonished to read William Hague’s speech on Thursday, in which he said among other things that “It is mystifying to us that the previous government failed to give due weight to the exercise of British influence in the EU”. This comes from the same party who just a year ago left the main centre-right group in the European parliament in order to join what the deputy prime minister Nick Clegg called “nutters, antisemites and homophobes”. Clearly, leaving the biggest political group in the European parliament is not what is going to help ‘exercise British influence in the EU’ but will definitely help to its isolation.
So last night’s Red Wedge event came with perfect timing, there being a need to discuss UK’s position on Europe, how it changed under Labour, where it will go under the coalition and what impact the contradictory views within the coalition will have on our relationship with Europe. The event was chaired by the newly elected MP for Wolverhampton North East, Emma Reynolds, and included the former MEP and deputy leader of the EPLP, Richard Corbett, the shadow Europe minister, Chris Bryant, the director of the Centre for European Reform, Charles Grant and Gideon Skinner who is a research director at Ipsos MORI.
What should be Labour’s approach to Europe? First of all, as Chris Bryant MP rightly said, it should be based on ‘our internationalist and democratic socialist values’. Europe and the EU face big issues such as cooperating with emerging economies worldwide, developing the EU as a low-carbon economic zone of the future able to lead the international green economy, building economic growth alongside deficit reduction, and a strong European foreign policy that uses our clout in Europe to advance British interests. It will not be possible to achieve these objectives without cooperation with our EU partners.
Within the party some steps needs to be taken. Personally I think that it would be helpful to have a strategic thinking group on Europe which will include the shadow foreign secretary and the shadow Europe minister and other former Europe ministers. In addition, as David Miliband said a few weeks ago, it is important to invite the leader of the EPLP to the shadow cabinet as the voices from Brussels on European matters are important. It will also be helpful for the party if some frontbench MPs avoid using rhetoric against EU immigration for instance, as this is counterproductive for a progressive party such as Labour.
Thirdly, in relation to the government’s policy on Europe, Labour needs to oppose when the government is not defending the national interest, but it needs to support the government when it takes the right decisions in relation to EU affairs. The Conservatives talked before the election of repatriating powers back from the EU and on a referendum on giving further powers to the EU in the future. Under the coalition agreement the Tories only secured the latter and in such a strange coalition which contains both eurosceptics and europhiles, it is likely that at some point in the future the issue of Europe will trigger the end of this government. This government will be surely tested on the EU budget, the external action service and the common agricultural policy. The prime minister will have to face down the staunch eurosceptic MPs inside his party, which are not going to let things go to rest and already voiced their dissent on the EU.
In the meantime we have to learn lessons from the past on our policy towards Europe and to have a coherent approach that will resonate well among the British electorate. We should proud of Britain’s being part of the biggest single market in the world, having 55 per cent of our exports going to the EU and other achievements. And finally, we should stress that the European Union is essential to the success of Britain and a Britain fully engaged in Europe is essential to the success of the European Union.
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
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