Labour’s European dilemma

Labour should make common cause with its sister parties and oppose EU austerity.

2011 was dominated by the eurozone debt crisis and the bad news is the same will be true in 2012, well, at least for the first six months of it. The debt crisis is, for wildly different reasons, a major headache for the three major UK parties.

The Conservatives are still hugging themselves with delight at David Cameron's 'obstinate child' act at the EU summit. They were particularly pleased when ministers and Treasury officials traded insults with the French counterparts about the state of the other's economy - for a Tory there is no higher calling than picking a diplomatic fight with the French. The Tories also enjoyed a decent poll bounce following the summit.

But their pleasure will be short-lived. Those who are happiest with Cameron's non-veto are the ones who see it as the first step towards a referendum on Britain's EU membership. Meanwhile, by seeing the summit solely as an opportunity to shore up back-bench support and protect Tory donors in the City, Cameron has shut himself out of the negotiations to resolve the eurozone crisis on which the stability of the UK economy depends. In the meantime, it is almost certain that, one way or another, he will increase Britain's IMF contributions to help foot the bill.

The Lib Dems once again demonstrated their unique capacity in government to pick the least popular position. Their support for the Angela Merkel inspired 'fiscal compact' treaty and fury with Cameron for isolating Britain within the EU follows the precedent of supporting massive spending cuts and the tripling of tuition fees. It is a remarkable change for a party famous in opposition for jumping on ever populist band-waggon that moved.

But Labour, too, has a big strategic decision. Amid the triumphal mood of the House of Commons debate following the summit, Ed Miliband actually had Cameron on the run until cornered by the question: 'what would you have done'. Unfortunately, Miliband had no answer.

The truth is that David Cameron was right to oppose the fiscal treaty. Indeed, most media coverage of the December summit overlooked the fact that the proposed 'fiscal compact' treaty is actually very bad news indeed. While the left should not be opposed to the concept of putting a national debt ceiling into law the automatic sanctions, involving fines of up to 0.2 per cent of GDP, are excessive and pro-cyclical. Fining a country in economic difficulty billions of euros is akin to cutting off a one-legged man's working limb. But it is the limit of 0.5 per cent on structural deficits that is truly daft. Most EU countries can't hope to meet this target within the coming years, only the likes of Germany, Finland and Netherlands, who have a large current account surplus, will be able to consistently meet it. To put the 0.5 per cent figure in context, Britain's structural deficit is currently around 6.5 per cent. Even with George Osborne's spending cuts the OBR's optimistic forecast is that this will only fall to 4 per cent by 2015.

More importantly, this treaty will make it virtually impossible for EU countries to pursue Keynesian-style expansion in the future. If it ever comes into force, Europe will be locked into a decade of austerity and economic stagnation. At a time when most economists are projecting a tough decade of recession and low growth, the treaty is plain daft. Had Ed Miliband been at the summit there is no question that he should have opposed it.

With the Coalition bickering between the Conservatives and the rest of the EU, and the Lib Dems with their Tory colleagues, Labour has a difficult path to tread. Should it join the Tories in some facile, but populist, Brussels-bashing?

For those who think Labour is unwaveringly pro-EU, it's worth remembering that euroscepticism has existed in Labour far longer than the Conservatives. Labour's infamous 1983 election manifesto included a pledge to withdraw from the EEC. Only in the late 1980s under Kinnock's leadership did party policy became pro-European as, crucially, did the trade unions, realising that the EU could be an effectively means to enshrine social and employment protection in European law.

But although there are prominent eurosceptics on the Labour backbenches and in the shadow cabinet, Miliband should realise that there is no electoral advantage to Labour by adopting a Tory-style euroscepticism. This sentiment has been built into the Tory party's DNA ever since the Maastricht Treaty and Labour couldn't credibly outflank them. Besides, while the British public may be sceptical about the EU, they have never elected a party whose platform was to estrange Britain from the rest of Europe.

Instead, Labour should make common cause with its sister-parties, particularly those in France and Germany who face critically important general elections this year. Both Francois Hollande and Peer Steinbruck have opposed the new treaty, rightly arguing that it enshrines austerity economics in a recession and, consequently, won't work.

Indeed, although Labour's relationship with its continental partners has often been marred by mutual suspicion, the reality is that they are all, by and large, singing from the same policy hymn sheet. Rigorous financial regulation, which Britons want but the Tories refuse to countenance, is being adopted at EU level. Laws on short-selling, hedge funds, and bank bonuses have all been adopted at European level with Labour's support but in the teeth of Tory opposition.

Now, more than before, socialist parties need each other. In the past two years left-wing parties with a strong history in government have been soundly beaten in the UK, Spain, Sweden, Portugal and the Netherlands to name but four, with Helle Thorning-Schmidt's victory in Denmark the only ray of light. Defeat for Hollande and Steinbruck this year would point ominously towards a Labour defeat at the next election.

Labour needs to sketch out a credible alternative on Europe if they are to effectively attack Cameron's isolationism. Both the Tories and Lib Dems will lose what influence they once had in Brussels. Rather than join them in carping from the sidelines and wielding vetos and threats that do not mean or stop anything, Labour should fill the policy vacuum as the only party with any meaningful answers on Europe.

Ben Fox is chairman of GMB Brussels and political adviser to the Socialist vice-president of economic and monetary affairs.

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.