The EU flag blows at Reichstag building is on October 01, 2013 in Berlin. Photograph: Getty Images.
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How Labour will work for real change in Europe

We need to boost Europe’s competitiveness, avoid a race to the bottom on skills and wages and ensure EU migrants contribute to our economy and our society.

This week Ed Miliband made clear that a Labour government will be as bold in defending membership of the EU as we are in pushing for real change in Europe. Because being willing to speak up for our place in Europe, does not mean being deaf to the concerns that some people have about our membership.

Securing Britain’s future in Europe means the UK needs to work for change within Europe: setting out how the EU can be made to work better for Britain. That is why Labour has set out a reform agenda focused on boosting Europe’s competitiveness, avoiding a race to the bottom on skills and wages and ensuring people coming to the UK from other EU countries seeking work contribute to our economy and our society.

First, on the economy, our reforms will help deliver a Europe focused on jobs and growth, not more austerity and rising unemployment.  An EU Commissioner for growth, and an independent audit of the impact of any new piece of legislation on growth, would be key to helping re-focusing Europe towards this key task. Ed Miliband also announced that Labour is working with British businesses – through the CBI – to agree a plan for the completion of the Single Market in key sectors like digital and services, helping create new jobs and expand our economy in the years ahead.

Second, we will put in place reforms to help do more to ensure that EU migrants contribute to our economy, and to our society. We will work for greater flexibility on transitional arrangements for new member states, including extending the period of time that people from them have to wait before being able to come to the UK to look for work. But EU migration is not just about who should be able to come to the UK, it is also about what those already here should be entitled to. That is why Ed Miliband announced that we will address the payment of benefits to those not resident in this country, and will look again at the rules on deporting EU citizens who receive a prison sentence for committing a crime after arriving in the UK.

Labour has made clear that we do not think it is right that EU migrants should have access to all UK benefits from day one of entering the country, which is why we have called on the government to double the time that people coming to the UK from other EU countries seeking work have to wait before being able to claim Jobseeker's Allowance. None of us want to see a race to the bottom on wages and skills between EU workers and local workers. That is why we will take action to ensure the minimum wage is properly enforced, close loopholes in rules for agency workers, and look at EU Directives designed to prevent undercutting.

Finally, we recognise that any agenda for change in Europe must also address people’s concerns about how power is exercised at a European level. Labour does not support a drive towards an "ever closer union". EU cooperation is important but so too is the role of the UK Parliament. To uphold this principle, national parliaments must have a greater role in EU decision making, and we should be prepared to work to bring powers back to Britain where EU cooperation hinders rather than advances our interests.

No one is today calling for more powers to be transferred from Britain to Brussels. But given the uncertainty about precisely what a changing Europe and further integration in the eurozone might involve, Ed Miliband has acknowledged that a further transfer of powers remains unlikely, but possible. That is why he announced that a Labour government will legislate for a new lock: there would be no transfer of powers from the UK to the EU without a referendum. This would not just be a referendum to ratify a decision on powers, because as we saw in other countries, referendums of this kind are too easy for governments to ignore. Instead, it would have to be an in/out referendum, with a clear choice for the public to make on our membership of the EU.

After Ed Miliband’s speech this week, it is clear that the dividing line on the EU is not status quo vs change. The choice in 2015 is between a Conservative Party fast unravelling over Europe, and a Labour Party committed to working to make the EU work better for Britain. Ed Miliband leads a Labour Party united on what is best for Britain – and committed to delivering real change in Europe.

Douglas Alexander is the shadow foreign secretary and Labour MP for Paisley and Renfrewshire South.

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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.