Labour must lead the debate on Europe

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As Labour gathers in Manchester, the party prepares to discuss a whole host of issues. With domestic economic challenges desperately seeking solutions, everyone’s mind will be focused on how to come up with and articulate a message that will deliver electoral victory in 2015.

But there is one challenge that will very likely be overlooked. The EU and the question of Britain’s membership of it does not make for a comfortable discussion subject and is likely to be ignored, even though it is profoundly important for Britain’s future.

There is no denying the pro-European credentials of the Labour party. Labour leaders, activists, and centre-left thinkers have for decades led the pro-European cause in the UK. The current front bench features a whole host of pro-Europeans and a leader committed to the process of European integration.

But there is also no escaping from the fact that Labour has found it difficult to refrain from playing politics when it comes to Europe. Labour prime ministers and ministers have in the past been guilty of grandstanding in Brussels, purely for domestic political consumption. The decline of the Conservatives from a fairly Eurorealistic party to an overwhelmingly anti-European one was partly added to by Labour’s eagerness to accentuate and exploit divisions among the Tories for its own electoral gain.

The question of Europe has long been used as a political chess board.

But this is no time for playing games. The eurozone crisis has had a threefold effect on the EU debate in Britain. It gave eurosceptics that ‘I-told-you-so’ moment, while shaking people’s confidence in the EU and its ability to deliver for its member states’ citizens.

It also proved the extent to which our economy is integrated with the wider European economy and how much events over there affect what happens over here.

Above all, it has set in motion an unprecedented march towards closer economic, fiscal and political integration in the eurozone. The more the EU moves closer to a federal form of supranational governance, the more Britain will be faced with the existential question of whether to join in or leave altogether.

The issues raised by that dilemma go to the very soul of the nation. Does Britain want to remain an effective and influential player on the international stage, part of the biggest market in the world and a successful pan-European economy with a global currency? Or does it want to stay stuck to 18th century notions of sovereignty, fall victim to isolationist windmill-chasing and reduce itself to a small island in the middle of the Atlantic, caught between global giants like the US, China, Brazil and, of course, the EU?

The stakes are high; the choice that Britain will be asked to make will affect the country’s place in the world for generations. By joining with our European partners we safeguard, not surrender, our sovereignty in an increasingly global and competitive world. We enhance our ability to maintain our political, economic, social and cultural identity, which is an integral part of Europe’s identity. We afford ourselves the opportunity to pursue our common European interests, our shared vision of what the world should be like.

The alternative as presented by Eurosceptics – an ‘independent’ Britain, free from ‘burdensome’ regulation, able to ‘freely’ trade with the rest of the world – translates in to a country at the mercy of global events that it cannot control, one that lacks the size to negotiate preferable trade deals, a place with low labour, environmental and social standards, where wild capitalism reigns.

Dangers reside even in those ‘modest’ calls for renegotiations of our EU membership, for a looser relationship with our partners. They are nothing more than a shortcut to the exit door. Why should our partners agree to Britain opting out of the rules of a common market it wants to be part of? Attempting to present a ‘renegotiation’ as a viable option and base an EU membership referendum on its outcome is like sleepwalking towards a cliff’s edge.

Instead of indulging such notions, the case for the benefits of EU membership must be made with confidence. Our responsibilities must be explained honestly. Decades of weak resistance to tabloid misinformation cannot be overturned easily. But the arguments in favour of EU membership are overwhelming.

Being part of the EU gives Britain privileged access to the biggest single market in the world, where 50% of Britain’s exports go to. Hundreds of millions are gained every year thanks to EU trade agreements with third countries. EU social policies provide safeguards and a level playing field for workers across the Union. EU environmental and consumer standards make the places we live in and the products we consume safer. A strong EU confronts global corporate interests when market abuse takes place. An EU speaking with one voice takes on cross-border organised crime as well as dictators and defends human rights around the world. The EU is the biggest provider of aid and development assistance.

The Labour movement in Britain has a historic responsibility to do all it can to ensure that all these benefits are explained, so the country choses the right path for its future. It is up to the left to stand up to right-wing nationalism, make the case for internationalism, be true to the vision of post-war European economic and political integration rather than pre-war national chauvinism, territorial expansionism and inter-state conflict.

Labour must challenge all those that want to push the country out of the EU, at the margins of irrelevance.

The fight for the country’s soul, for its future, cannot wait a day longer. It cannot be fought in hiding; it cannot be left to others. From the doorstep to the Commons’ benches, Labour, true to its progressive and internationalist conscience, is the party that must lead.

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Petros Fassoulas is chair of European Movement UK

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Photo: European Parliament

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