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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Who is the EU's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier?

The former French foreign minister has shown signs that he will play hardball in negotiations.

The European Commission’s chief Brexit negotiator today set an October 2018 deadline for the terms of Britain’s divorce from the European Union to be agreed. Michel Barnier gave his first press conference since being appointed to head up what will be tough talks between the EU and UK.

Speaking in Brussels, he warned that UK-EU relations had entered “uncharted waters”. He used the conference to effectively shorten the time period for negotiations under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, the legal process to take Britain out of the EU. The article sets out a two year period for a country to leave the bloc.

But Barnier, 65, warned that the period of actual negotiations would be shorter than two years and there would be less than 18 months to agree Brexit.  If the terms were set in October 2018, there would be five months for the European Parliament, European Council and UK Parliament to approve the deal before a March 2019 Brexit.

But who is the urbane Frenchman who was handpicked by Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to steer the talks?

A centre-right career politician, Barnier is a member of the pan-EU European People’s Party, like Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

A committed European and architect of closer eurozone banking integration, Barnier rose to prominence after being elected aged just 27 to the French National Assembly.  He is notorious in Brussels for his repeated references to the 1992 Winter Olympics he organised in Albertville with triple Olympic ski champion Jean-Claude Killy.

He first joined the French cabinet in 1993 as minister of the environment. In 1995, Jacques Chirac made him Secretary of State for European Affairs, teeing up a long and close relationship with Brussels.

Barnier has twice served as France’s European Commissioner, under the administrations of Romano Prodi and José Manuel BarrosoMost recently he was serving as an unpaid special advisor on European Defence Policy to Juncker until the former prime minister of Luxembourg made him Brexit boss.“I wanted an experienced politician for this difficult job,” Juncker said at the time of Barnier, who has supported moves towards an EU army.

 

Barnier and the Brits

Barnier’s appointment was controversial. Under Barroso, he was Internal Market commissioner. Responsible for financial services legislation at the height of the crisis, he clashed with the City of London.

During this period he was memorably described as a man who, in a hall of mirrors, would stop and check his reflection in every one.

Although his battles with London’s bankers were often exaggerated, the choice of Barnier was described as an “act of war” by some British journalists and was greeted with undisguised glee by Brussels europhiles.

Barnier moved to calm those fears today. At the press conference, he said, “I was 20 years old, a very long time ago, when I voted for the first time and it was in the French referendum on the accession of the UK to the EU.

“That time I campaigned for a yes vote. And I still think today that I made right choice.”

But Barnier, seen by some as aloof and arrogant, also showed a mischievous side.  It was reported during Theresa May’s first visit to Brussels as prime minister that he was demanding that all the Brexit talks be conducted in French.

While Barnier does speak English, he is far more comfortable talking in his native French. But the story, since denied, was seen as a snub to the notoriously monolingual Brits.

The long lens photo of a British Brexit strategy note that warned the EU team was “very French” may also have been on his mind as he took the podium in Brussels today.

Barnier asked, “In French or in English?” to laughter from the press.

He switched between English and French in his opening remarks but only answered questions in French, using translation to ensure he understood the questions.

Since his appointment Barnier has posted a series of tweets which could be seen as poking fun at Brexit. On a tour of Croatia to discuss the negotiations, he posed outside Zagreb’s Museum of Broken Relationships asking, “Guess where we are today?”

 

 

He also tweeted a picture of himself drinking prosecco after Boris Johnson sparked ridicule by telling an Italian economics minister his country would have to offer the UK tariff-free trade to sell the drink in Britain.

But Barnier can also be tough. He forced through laws to regulate every financial sector, 40 pieces of legislation in four years, when he was internal market commissioner, in the face of sustained opposition from industry and some governments.

He warned today, "Being a member of the EU comes with rights and benefits. Third countries [the UK] can never have the same rights and benefits since they are not subject to same obligations.”

On the possibility of Britain curbing free movement of EU citizens and keeping access to the single market, he was unequivocal.

“The single market and four freedoms are indivisible. Cherry-picking is not an option,” he said.

He stressed that his priority in the Brexit negotiations would be the interests of the remaining 27 member states of the European Union, not Britain.

“Unity is the strength of the EU and President Juncker and I are determined to preserve the unity and interest of the EU-27 in the Brexit negotiations.”

In a thinly veiled swipe at the British, again greeted with laughter in the press room, he told reporters, “It is much better to show solidarity than stand alone. I repeat, it is much better to show solidarity than stand alone”.

Referring to the iconic British poster that urged Brits to "Keep Calm and Carry On” during World War Two, he today told reporters, “We are ready. Keep calm and negotiate.”

But Barnier’s calm in the face of the unprecedented challenge to the EU posed by Brexit masks a cold determination to defend the European project at any cost.

James Crisp is the news editor at EurActiv, an online EU news service.