Labour needs a Commission on Europe

Such a Commission would ask hard questions, but also be more productive than David Cameron's opportunistic offer of a referendum.

So how should Labour respond to David Cameron and Nigel Farage on Europe? The reflex denunciations of opportunism and short-termism - Cameron as a Tory version of the 1970s Harold Wilson - are OK for the time being but do not take us very far.

Ed Miliband has done well to position Labour as not being hostile in principle to a referendum but politely asking where is the agreement to a new EU Treaty or to Britain's a la carte renogiation announced by the prime minister.

But this holding policy is not enough. When I was elected to the European Parliament in 1989 it was the beginning of Labour's decade of euphoria. Jacques Delors had made his famous Social Europe speech at the TUC and the Tories were destroyed by their ERM debacle and Maastricht divisions.

Tony Blair trashed Tory isolationism and mocked John Major 's feeble Europe policy.

When I stood down as leader of Labour MEPs in 2000, the uncritical EU enthusiasm was already fading. The Treasury did not like the Euro. Blair blocked or delayed key pro-worker directives. The Amsterdam and Nice Treaties did not lead to the abolition of Britain as John Redwood declared but nor did they make the EU work better.

North America or the BRICS were far more exciting in economic terms than slow growth Europe.

Foreign policy unity evaporated over Iraq. The Lib Dems came out for a referendum on the EU constitutional treaty, obliging Blair to follow rather than lead in setting the nation's Europe policy.

Europe became a hate word as a new generation of Tories headed by Cameron, Liam Fox, William Hague and IDS competed in scorning and rubbishing the EU. It was impossible to be selected as a Tory candidate unless an oath of dis-allegiance to the EU was sworn.

Cameron broke political links with centre right leaders like Angela Merkel, Nicolas Sarkozy and Jose Manuel Barroso. Nigel Farage emerged as Cameron's dark avatar saying in public what top Tories say in the tea room.

Month by month Cameron found himself being devoured by his own creation. Tory Europhobia took on its own life. It demanded the red meat of an in-out referendum.

Now Cameron has provoked a crisis in Europe with his overt willingness to accept Britain leaving the EU in 2017 and the consequent crisis that will rock Europe in a way not seen since the 1930s. So what should Labour's response be?

There is a short term flurry of Newsnight or Today appearances but Labour needs a long term strategic response to the European question.

After John Smith took over as Labour leader in 1992 he realized that the piece meal approach to the Thatcher revolution of the 1980s was insufficient. Shadow cabinet ministers did not have the capacity to think more widely beyond the demands of tactical Commons oppositionism.

Smith set up the Commission for Social Justice with a broad membership and a wide remit to come up with what turned into the modernized social democracy that won Labour three elections. It brought new younger thinkers and future politicians like David Miliband into active politics.

Ed Miliband should set up a wide ranging Commission on Europe to produce, ahead of the 2015 election, a wide ranging programme for Britain's future relationship with Europe. A Commission on Europe should have a membership well beyond Labour and should search new younger thinkers not the representatives of the Blair era pro Europeans. It should involve business leaders - not those who sign the usual letters to the FT on EU matters but new generation entrepreneurs. Seats should be reserved for thinkers from continental nations.

The Commission should ask hard questions about economic reform, including how to improve genuine cooperation that can lead to greater competitiveness while promoting social justice. It could examine why so many trade unions in the EU still feel comfortable with 20th century oppositionist and confrontational politics rather than the no-strike cooperation with capital that has preserved jobs and training in Nordic or German speaking Europe.

It should propose serious reforms to EU institution including the size and scope of the Commission and how national parliaments could have co-decision powers with the Parliament in Strasbourg.

The question of a referendum is part of the process. But in contrast to David Cameron's opportunistic vote seeking decision to begin by offering us a chance to quit Europe, a Commission on Europe would offer the fresh analysis and thinking that political parties have avoided for more than a decade.

Alan Donnelly was Leader of the Labour MEPs in the European Parliament

 

David Cameron gives a press conference after an EU summit last October. Photograph: Getty Images
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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle