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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Brexiteers want national sovereignty and tighter borders – but they can't have both

The role of the European Court of Justice is a major sticking point in talks.

Why doesn't Theresa May's counter-offer on the rights of European citizens living and working in Britain pass muster among the EU27? It all comes down to one of the biggest sticking points in the Brexit talks: the role of the European Court of Justice.

The European Commission, under direction from the leaders of member states, wants the rights of the three million living here and of the British diaspora in the EU guaranteed by the European Court. Why? Because that way, the status of EU citizens here or that of British nationals in the EU aren't subject to the whims of a simple majority vote in the legislature.

This is where Liam Fox, as crassly he might have put it, has a point about the difference between the UK and the EU27, being that the UK does not "need to bury" its 20th century history. We're one of the few countries in the EU where political elites get away with saying, "Well, what's the worst that could happen?" when it comes to checks on legislative power. For the leaders of member states, a guarantee not backed up by the European Court of Justice is no guarantee at all.

That comes down to the biggest sticking point of the Brexit talks: rules. In terms of the deal that most British voters, Leave or Remain, want – a non-disruptive exit that allows the British government to set immigration policy – UK politicians can get that, provided they concede on money and rules, ie we continue to follow the directions of the European Court while having no power to set them. Britain could even seek its own trade deals and have that arrangement.

But the problem is that deal runs up against the motivations of the Brexit elite, who are in the main unfussed about migration but are concerned about sovereignty – and remaining subject to the rule of the ECJ without being able to set its parameters is, it goes without saying, a significant loss of sovereignty. 

Can a fudge be found? That the Article 50 process goes so heavily in favour of the EU27 and against the leaving member means that the appetite on the EuCo side for a fudge is limited. 

But there is hope, as David Davis has conceded that there will have to be an international guarantor, as of course there will have to be. If you trade across borders, you need a cross-border referee. If a plane goes up in one country and lands in another, then it is, by necessity, regulated across borders. (That arrangement has also been mooted by Sigmar Gabriel, foreign minister in Angela Merkel's government. But that Gabriel's centre-left party looks likely to be expelled from coalition after the next election means that his support isn't as valuable as many Brexiteers seem to think.)

On the Conservative side, a new EU-UK international body would satisfy the words of May's ECJ red line. On the EU27 side, that the body would, inevitably, take its lead from the treaties of the EU sans Britain and the ECJ would mean that in spirit, Britain would be subject to the ECJ by another name.

But it comes back to the Brexit dilemma. You can satisfy the voters' demand for non-disruptive control of British borders. You can satisfy political demand for sovereignty. But you can't have both. May – and whoever replaces her – will face the same question: who do you disappoint?

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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