Cameron's prescriptions for Europe miss the point (again)

The Prime Minister wants to talk about growth, but recognising the impact of German plans for collec

David Cameron wants Britain to play an integral role in reforming the European Union. He really does. His speech in Davos today explained how he is committed to reviving the continent's flagging economies with an agenda for boosting growth - deregulation; liberalisation, competitive taxation.

This is a familiar tune. Britain's position under Labour wasn't so very different - accepting a degree of political integration as the necessary price for creating an open, free trading space of continental scale and hoping, over time, to make that space look more like the UK economy and less like the French one.

The problem now, as I wrote in my column this week, is that the kind of diplomacy that is required actually to drive that agenda in the European Council - involving compromise, long-term nurturing of relationships with EU leaders; demonstrations of commitment to the European project - is also the kind of behaviour that the Conservative party generally finds unacceptable in a leader. In other words, Cameron can say this stuff, but he is no closer to getting it done if he can't build the strategic majorities among fellow EU member states to make it happen.

But there is another problem. Cameron's analysis of the EU's growth problems necessarily has to exclude discussion of the effect on demand of choreographed mass austerity - to concede that point would be to admit that the same force is in play in Britain. But clearly this is an issue. In his speech, the Prime Minister praised efforts by eurozone countries to bring their public finances under control - the drive for a fiscal compact led by German Chancellor Angela Merkel - but warned that it was not enough. He encourages the single currency bloc to consider issuing euro-bonds and effecting transfers between states - a true fiscal union, in other words. He essentially told Merkel to dip into her budget to save the euro.

If Cameron understands the inadequacy of Merkel's plans at the level of budget imbalances inside the eurozone, why does he not understand the related problem of German-enforced austerity for the continent draining aggregate demand? Why does he insist on offering only long-term supply-side solutions to the problem of European growth? The answer, I suspect, is that the government does understand the issue but it is taboo because of the coalition's political commitment to make austerity a morally inviolate part of domestic economic policy.

There was a meeting last week of the Franco-British Colloque - a top-level club of politicians, academics, business leaders etc to discuss cross-channel issues. It meets annually and this time the gathering was held in the UK. George Osborne was there and, someone who was present tells me, in the discussions of the EU's growth problem, the Chancellor effectively acknowledged the macroeconomic case against collective European austerity. He simply couldn't accept that it was relevant to the policies he is deploying in Britain. Treasury economists will surely be telling him the same thing: Merkel's fetish for fiscal conservatism is going to drag Europe down.

If Cameron wants to take a lead in promoting growth in Europe he could start by making that point. He can't of course, at least not without repudiating the central tenet of his government's economic policy.

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

Getty
Show Hide image

Everyone's forgotten the one issue that united the Labour party

There was a time when Ed Miliband spoke at Momentum rallies.

To label the row over the EU at Thursday’s Labour leadership hustings "fireworks" would be to endow it with more beauty than it deserves. Owen Smith’s dogged condemnation of John McDonnell’s absence from a Remain rally – only for Corbyn to point out that his absence was for medical reasons – ought to go down as a cringing new low point in the campaign. 

Not so long ago, we were all friends. In the course of the EU referendum, almost all of the protagonists in the current debacle spoke alongside each other and praised one another’s efforts. At a local level, party activists of all stripes joined forces. Two days before polling day, Momentum activists helped organise an impromptu rally. Ed Miliband was the headline speaker, and was cheered on. 

If you take the simple version of the debate, Labour’s schism on the EU appears as an aberration of the usual dynamics of left and right in the party. Labour's left is supposedly cheering a position which avoids advocating what it believes in (Remain), because it would lose votes. Meanwhile, the right claims to be dying in a ditch for its principles - no matter what the consequences for Labour’s support in Leave-voting heartlands.

Smith wants to oppose Brexit, even after the vote, on the basis of using every available procedural mechanism. He would whip MPs against the invocation of Article 50, refuse to implement it in government, and run on a manifesto of staying in the EU. For the die-hard Europhiles on the left – and I count myself among these, having run the Another Europe is Possible campaign during the referendum – there ought to be no contest as to who to support. On a result that is so damaging to people’s lives and so rooted in prejudice, how could we ever accept that there is such a thing as a "final word"? 

And yet, on the basic principles that lie behind a progressive version of EU membership, such as freedom of movement, Smith seems to contradict himself. Right at the outset of the Labour leadership, Smith took to Newsnight to express his view – typical of many politicians moulded in the era of New Labour – that Labour needed to “listen” to the views Leave voters by simply adopting them, regardless of whether or not they were right. There were, he said, “too many” immigrants in some parts of the country. 

Unlike Smith, Corbyn has not made his post-Brexit policy a headline feature of the campaign, and it is less widely understood. But it is clear, via the five "red lines" outlined by John McDonnell at the end of June:

  1. full access to the single market
  2. membership of the European investment bank
  3. access to trading rights for financial services sector
  4. full residency rights for all EU nationals in the UK and all UK nationals in the EU, and
  5. the enshrinement of EU protections for workers. 

Without these five conditions being met, Labour would presumably not support the invocation of Article 50. So if, as seems likely, a Conservative government would never meet these five conditions, would there be any real difference in how a Corbyn leadership would handle the situation? 

The fight over the legacy of the referendum is theatrical at times. The mutual mistrust last week played out on the stage in front of a mass televised audience. Some Corbyn supporters jeered Smith as he made the case for another referendum. Smith accused Corbyn of not even voting for Remain, and wouldn’t let it go. But, deep down, the division is really about a difference of emphasis. 

It speaks to a deeper truth about the future of Britain in Europe. During the referendum, the establishment case for Remain floundered because it refused to make the case that unemployment and declining public services were the result of austerity, not immigrants. Being spearheaded by Conservatives, it couldn’t. It fell to the left to offer the ideological counter attack that was needed – and we failed to reach enough people. 

As a result, what we got was a popular mandate for petty racism and a potentially long-term shift to the right in British politics, endangering a whole raft of workplace and legal protections along the way. Now that it has happened, anyone who really hopes to overcome either Brexit, or the meaning of Brexit, has to address the core attitudes and debates at their root. Then as now, it is only clear left-wing ideas – free from any attempt to triangulate towards anti-migrant sentiment– that can have any hope of success. 

The real dividing lines in Labour are not about the EU. If they were, the Eurosceptic Frank Field would not be backing Smith. For all that it may be convenient to deny it, Europe was once, briefly, the issue that united the Labour Party. One day, the issues at stake in the referendum may do so again – but only if Labour consolidates itself around a strategy for convincing people of ideas, rather than simply reaching for procedural levers.