The euro crisis poses dilemmas for Labour too

Cameron's EU pain is a gift to the opposition, but how far is Ed Miliband willing to go to destabili

Ed Miliband challenged David Cameron in parliament today on his negotiating position ahead of Friday's European Council summit. The charge was that the prime minister has promised something to his backbenchers that he cannot deliver - a repatriation of powers from Brussels. It was a line calculated to probe Tory eurosceptics' anguish over their leader's failure to capitalise on the opportunity (as they see it) of the eurozone crisis to bring about the longed for renegotiation of the UK's relationship with Brussels.

That was a fairly easy hit for a leader of the opposition. Why, when the prime minister's biggest political bruise is exposed, would he do anything other than punch it? At the moment, Labour doesn't really need to do much on Europe other than find new ways to exploit coalition pain on the subject. And just to be clear, there is a lot of pain out there. Cameron is in an appalling position. He has to go to Brussels and somehow persuade fellow EU leaders that he wholeheartedly endorses their plans to save the euro with a treaty for much closer integration, while pointing out that his party thinks a treaty for much closer integration is an affront to democracy and human dignity, so could he please have a bunch of concessions on issues unrelated to the euro, otherwise he might have to veto the whole thing. If he fails to pull that off, his backbenchers will feel betrayed. And if he manages to get concessions, they probably won't be big enough and his backbenchers will demand a referendum on the new treaty. They can sabotage it in parliament if they don't get one.

It all adds up to a Christmas hamper of opportunities for Labour. But if, as is quite possible, the situation turns still more critical for the single currency and David Cameron, Ed Miliband will also have to start formulating a position on his preferred outcome. At the moment, Labour's EU policy has been spelled out by shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander. He advocates taking a "hard headed view of Britain's interests", which means supporting plans to stabilise the single currency, while making sure single market rules are not skewed against the UK and pushing for reform to boost European trade. The balance of power between Westminster and Brussels is not ideal, Alexander concedes, but now is not the time to fixate on repatriation of powers.

That, as it happens is not so very far removed from the government's official negotiating position. The key difference is that Cameron actually has to deliver it and his raucous party has made it much harder for him (my column in this week's magazine deals with that in more depth). Meanwhile, Ed Balls has taken the lead for Labour in the economic debate around the single currency crisis and struck a slightly more sceptical tone. He has positioned the party firmly against British participation in any EU bailout funds. He also likes to take the credit for helping Gordon Brown keep Britain out of the single currency when Tony Blair wanted to join. Combined, the two positions make for a kind of cautious scepticism-lite - liking British membership of the EU for pragmatic commercial reasons; ready to like it more if the EU were something it is not.

That is a decent enough holding pattern. But it is not clear how it would evolve if Britain's EU relations lurch into a full-scale diplomatic crisis. Would Labour ever support Tory backbench calls for a referendum on a new EU treaty? The natural law of political opportunism dictates that they must denounce whatever deal Cameron does as a failure (which it probably will be), so should the party then join with Tory rebels and try to defeat it in parliament? If eurozone members proceed with their own fiscal consolidation, Britain's relationship with Brussels will, by definition, be changed. Will Labour then support calls for a more substantial renegotiation, including repatriation of powers? And, what it all comes down to in the end: how eurosceptic is Ed Miliband prepared to make Labour in order to make life really difficult for David Cameron and the coalition?

Labour's current position works as a cautious account of Britain's interests under the circumstances. But those circumstances are changing fast.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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The 11 things we know after the Brexit plan debate

Labour may just have fallen into a trap. 

On Wednesday, both Labour and Tory MPs filed out of the Commons together to back a motion calling on the Prime Minister to commit to publish the government’s Brexit plan before Article 50 is triggered in March 2017. 

The motion was proposed by Labour, but the government agreed to back it after inserting its own amendment calling on MPs to “respect the wishes of the United Kingdom” and adhere to the original timetable. 

With questions on everything from the customs union to the Northern Irish border, it is clear that the Brexit minister David Davis will have a busy Christmas. Meanwhile, his declared intention to stay schtum about the meat of Brexit negotiations for now means the nation has been hanging off every titbit of news, including a snapped memo reading “have cake and eat it”. 

So, with confusion abounding, here is what we know from the Brexit plan debate: 

1. The government will set out a Brexit plan before triggering Article 50

The Brexit minister David Davis said that Parliament will get to hear the government’s “strategic plans” ahead of triggering Article 50, but that this will not include anything that will “jeopardise our negotiating position”. 

While this is something of a victory for the Remain MPs and the Opposition, the devil is in the detail. For example, this could still mean anything from a white paper to a brief description released days before the March deadline.

2. Parliament will get a say on converting EU law into UK law

Davis repeated that the Great Repeal Bill, which scraps the European Communities Act 1972, will be presented to the Commons during the two-year period following Article 50.

He said: “After that there will be a series of consequential legislative measures, some primary, some secondary, and on every measure the House will have a vote and say.”

In other words, MPs will get to debate how existing EU law is converted to UK law. But, crucially, that isn’t the same as getting to debate the trade negotiations. And the crucial trade-off between access to the single market versus freedom of movement is likely to be decided there. 

3. Parliament is almost sure to get a final vote on the Brexit deal

The European Parliament is expected to vote on the final Brexit deal, which means the government accepts it also needs parliamentary approval. Davis said: “It is inconceivable to me that if the European Parliament has a vote, this House does not.”

Davis also pledged to keep MPs as well-informed as MEPs will be.

However, as shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer pointed out to The New Statesman, this could still leave MPs facing the choice of passing a Brexit deal they disagree with or plunging into a post-EU abyss. 

4. The government still plans to trigger Article 50 in March

With German and French elections planned for 2017, Labour MP Geraint Davies asked if there was any point triggering Article 50 before the autumn. 

But Davis said there were 15 elections scheduled during the negotiation process, so such kind of delay was “simply not possible”. 

5. Themed debates are a clue to Brexit priorities

One way to get a measure of the government’s priorities is the themed debates it is holding on various areas covered by EU law, including two already held on workers’ rights and transport.  

Davis mentioned themed debates as a key way his department would be held to account. 

It's not exactly disclosure, but it is one step better than relying on a camera man papping advisers as they walk into No.10 with their notes on show. 

6. The immigration policy is likely to focus on unskilled migrants

At the Tory party conference, Theresa May hinted at a draconian immigration policy that had little time for “citizens of the world”, while Davis said the “clear message” from the Brexit vote was “control immigration”.

He struck a softer tone in the debate, saying: “Free movement of people cannot continue as it is now, but this will not mean pulling up the drawbridge.”

The government would try to win “the global battle for talent”, he added. If the government intends to stick to its migration target and, as this suggests, will keep the criteria for skilled immigrants flexible, the main target for a clampdown is clearly unskilled labour.  

7. The government is still trying to stay in the customs union

Pressed about the customs union by Anna Soubry, the outspoken Tory backbencher, Davis said the government is looking at “several options”. This includes Norway, which is in the single market but not the customs union, and Switzerland, which is in neither but has a customs agreement. 

(For what it's worth, the EU describes this as "a series of bilateral agreements where Switzerland has agreed to take on certain aspects of EU legislation in exchange for accessing the EU's single market". It also notes that Swiss exports to the EU are focused on a few sectors, like chemicals, machinery and, yes, watches.)

8. The government wants the status quo on security

Davis said that on security and law enforcement “our aim is to preserve the current relationship as best we can”. 

He said there is a “clear mutual interest in continued co-operation” and signalled a willingness for the UK to pitch in to ensure Europe is secure across borders. 

One of the big tests for this commitment will be if the government opts into Europol legislation which comes into force next year.

9. The Chancellor is wooing industries

Robin Walker, the under-secretary for Brexit, said Philip Hammond and Brexit ministers were meeting organisations in the City, and had also met representatives from the aerospace, energy, farming, chemicals, car manufacturing and tourism industries. 

However, Labour has already attacked the government for playing favourites with its secretive Nissan deal. Brexit ministers have a fine line to walk between diplomacy and what looks like a bribe. 

10. Devolved administrations are causing trouble

A meeting with leaders of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland ended badly, with the First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon publicly declaring it “deeply frustrating”. The Scottish government has since ramped up its attempts to block Brexit in the courts. 

Walker took a more conciliatory tone, saying that the PM was “committed to full engagement with the devolved administrations” and said he undertook the task of “listening to the concerns” of their representatives. 

11. Remain MPs may have just voted for a trap

Those MPs backing Remain were divided on whether to back the debate with the government’s amendment, with the Green co-leader Caroline Lucas calling it “the Tories’ trap”.

She argued that it meant signing up to invoking Article 50 by March, and imposing a “tight timetable” and “arbitrary deadline”, all for a vaguely-worded Brexit plan. In the end, Lucas was one of the Remainers who voted against the motion, along with the SNP. 

George agrees – you can read his analysis of the Brexit trap here

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.