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.

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.