Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Progressive dilemmas for Labour on Europe

The Conservatives’ policy of self-marginalisation in Europe and their introduction of profound uncertainty about Britain’s continued EU membership leave any incoming Labour government in an invidious position.  As in 1997, the new government would benefit from a great deal of goodwill among European partners through sheer relief that EU policy is no longer being run as a byproduct of internal battles in the Conservative party. But while governments across Europe do want to help to keep Britain in the tent, there are more fundamental issues on their mind than calming the UK’s European psychodramas.

Today’s crisis is perhaps the greatest to face the EU since its foundation. By 2015, the EU will still be in a painful process of economic adjustment: an institution that was once seen as a vehicle for modernisation and prosperity is now viewed in some countries as the instrument of too-tight fiscal strait-jackets and by others as a mechanism for unjustly rewarding profligacy. Euroscepticism has become the new normal in many countries, and competing narratives of economic morality and differing realities of economic fortune have created new dividing lines, overturning previous conceptions of who is at the core and who the periphery of the emerging European order.

The stakes facing an incoming Labour government are higher than those we faced in 1997, and the politics of Europe (and of Europe in the Labour party) have been transformed since even 2010. The result is that Ed Miliband will face three different kinds of dilemmas – over the basic fact of EU membership; over the nature and terms of that membership; and over what sort of EU he would like to see.

The first dilemma is the prospect of an EU referendum. There is a tactical case for not being the only party not to offer a referendum and a strategic one for using a referendum to restore trust in politics and build a stronger mandate for Britain’s membership of the EU.  There is also a tactical and strategic case against offering a referendum.  The tactical one says that opening the Pandora’s box of a referendum could utterly dominate a new Labour government’s time in office and achieve nothing except reaffirming the status quo.  The strategic case is that an open-ended commitment to a referendum creates economic uncertainty and minimises Britain’s influence over the important – and as yet unresolved debates about reforming Europe – debates which Britain should try to shape from the inside rather than responding to from the sidelines.

The second dilemma concerns the interaction of progressive politics at home with the EU. Ed Miliband frets that the right to free movement of labour – of which British workers are taking ample advantage – has given UKIP an opportunity to turn an abstract issue about which British public opinion is pragmatic (EU membership and sovereignty) into a concrete issue about which they care a lot (immigration). The challenge for progressives is whether it is possible to deal with genuine concerns about pressure on wages, public services and welfare without indulging the suggestions that immigration should be frozen and the migration terms of our EU membership renegotiated, which are becoming dangerously mainstream in Labour politics. At the same time, despite recent alignment around the campaign to save Bombardier, the wider Labour family has still not resolved disputes hanging over from the last government on the appropriate settlement between EU public procurement rules and an active industrial strategy, and union colleagues are likely to revisit them early in any future Labour government.

The third dilemma is the politics of regaining influence. Labour’s leader believes that this is the left’s time – that devising a post-crash capitalism is the call of the hour and one that only centre-left parties can answer. If he is right, political capital should be spent on forging a new left agenda in Europe and forming a grand alliance of social democratic parties that can drive it. However, given the power configuration in Europe, it seems questionable that we can bet on an austerity backlash or centre-left governments defining the political mainstream. Come 2015, Germany will still likely be led by Angela Merkel (even if she may be in coalition with the SPD), and while the election of François Hollande appeared to provide some hope for a left resurgence in Europe, the subsequent crash in the French government’s popularity has quickly dimmed it. Meanwhile, new populist political forces on the left and right are threatening establishment parties across the continent. There is a risk of being caught in a no-man’s land between the conservative-led governments in key member states we will rely on to rebuild the UK’s influence in the EU, and the populist forces – including on the left – that are reshaping the terms of the political debate in many European countries.

Labour’s challenge extends well beyond the EU itself. At precisely the time when shifts in the global balance of power make the need for the UK to utilise Europe’s collective weight all the greater, its influence and very membership are in doubt. As we look across the dilemmas that would face an incoming Labour government, the settling of the UK’s relationship with Europe will not just be a crucial component in any progressive foreign policy, but a precondition for its success.

Questions to discuss:

  • What should Labour’s strategy be around an EU referendum?
  • How do we navigate the balance between value-based alliance building in Europe and dealing with the current power realities in the EU?
  • Can you be a progressive without being in favour of the free movement of goods and labour?


Kirsty McNeill is a former Downing Street adviser and a consultant advising international progressive organisations on strategy. She tweets @KirstyJMcNeill. Andrew Small is a transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of GMF. He tweets @ajwsmall


Photo: European Parliament

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Kirsty McNeill and Andrew Small

Kirsty McNeill is a former Downing Street adviser and a consultant advising international progressive organisations on strategy. She tweets @KirstyJMcNeill. Andrew Small is a transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. He tweets @ajwsmall

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