Labour has finally ended its vow of silence on the EU. Photo: Getty
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Labour is right to rebuild EU relations damaged by David Cameron

How the Labour party is moving in the right direction by trying to rebuild relations with our European allies.

It has been a while coming, but Labour has finally acknowledged the need to repair the damage that David Cameron has to Britain’s reputation in Europe.

The shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander’s speech in Paris last night was a bit light on substance, but the overall message that a Labour government will seek to build bridges with other European leaders is not before time.

“A key foreign policy priority for an incoming Labour government will be to review, repair and reset relations with Europe upon entering office,” Alexander said, adding that, “no country that seeks to play a leading part in the modern world could contemplate walking away from the world’s largest single market, or to cut itself off from some of its closest allies.”

Labour has kept a vow of silence on all things EU-related for most of the past four years.

On the main issue – whether to hold an "in/out" referendum on EU membership at some point between May and 2017 – Labour has rightly refused to match Cameron’s reckless promise. The referendum pledge is a recipe for paralysis: two more wasted years spent annoying our few remaining allies in Europe at a time when the UK economy and the eurozone remain fragile.

This has made some sense tactically – why enter the debate when you can sit back and watch the Tory party tear itself to pieces? – but it has made Labour look as though it has nothing to say.

Labour could start its bridge-building by giving up on the frankly unseemly rhetorical arms race with the Conservatives on who can talk toughest on EU migration.

Although "welfare tourism" is a far smaller problem than Cameron or, for that matter, Labour, have admitted, it is not just a British concern. The French, Dutch and German governments have all expressed concern about the ease with which migrants from other EU countries can claim welfare and other social benefits in their countries. They just haven’t demanded a rewrite of the EU treaties to deal with the problem. Instead, it can be dealt with through cooperation rather than confrontation and threats.

Demanding treaty change and caps on eastern European migrants to deal with a couple of hundred benefit claimants is like trying to crack a nut with a sledgehammer. Curbing abuse of the benefits system can be achieved through national law – like Angela Merkel’s government in Germany is attempting to do – without insulting the many thousands of Europeans who work hard and pay British taxes.

The UK’s stock in the rest of Europe has seldom been lower.

While most EU governments want the UK to stay, they doubt the Prime Minister’s sincerity as a would-be EU reformer.

A report by the German Council for Foreign Relations last autumn concluded that, while many of Cameron’s proposals for reform were broadly supported in other capitals, no government was prepared to stick its neck out for Britain.

"Some of the UK's criticisms of the EU and proposals . . . are seen as legitimate," the paper states. "What is not seen as legitimate is advancing these as a purely national interest and using the threat of a Brexit as leverage”.

Meanwhile, the constant threats to leave the EU have merely persuaded other capitals that British ideas to reform the bloc cannot be taken seriously.

Even on the issues where Cameron has been right, such as his opposition to Jean-Claude Juncker taking the European Commission presidency or the fiscal compact treaty that he claimed to have vetoed (but in fact had not), tactical mistakes and cack-handed diplomacy have ensured that he was isolated on each occasion.

In Paris, Berlin, Brussels and elsewhere, Labour will be pushing at open doors. The truth is that most European governments, including many of the centre-right, would much rather see Ed Miliband in No 10 in May rather than another five years of Cameron, who has dragged Britain to the brink of an EU exit that he claims not to want.

Now that Britain has reached "the point of no return" in Europe, rebuilding these relationships is vital to our national interest. Taking a leading role in Europe requires allies, not sniping from the sidelines.

Ben Fox is a reporter for EUobserver. He writes in a personal capacity, and tweets @benfox83.

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How tribunal fees silenced low-paid workers: “it was more than I earned in a month”

The government was forced to scrap them after losing a Supreme Court case.

How much of a barrier were employment tribunal fees to low-paid workers? Ask Elaine Janes. “Bringing up six children, I didn’t have £20 spare. Every penny was spent on my children – £250 to me would have been a lot of money. My priorities would have been keeping a roof over my head.”

That fee – £250 – is what the government has been charging a woman who wants to challenge their employer, as Janes did, to pay them the same as men of a similar skills category. As for the £950 to pay for the actual hearing? “That’s probably more than I earned a month.”

Janes did go to a tribunal, but only because she was supported by Unison, her trade union. She has won her claim, although the final compensation is still being worked out. But it’s not just about the money. “It’s about justice, really,” she says. “I think everybody should be paid equally. I don’t see why a man who is doing the equivalent job to what I was doing should earn two to three times more than I was.” She believes that by setting a fee of £950, the government “wouldn’t have even begun to understand” how much it disempowered low-paid workers.

She has a point. The Taylor Review on working practices noted the sharp decline in tribunal cases after fees were introduced in 2013, and that the claimant could pay £1,200 upfront in fees, only to have their case dismissed on a technical point of their employment status. “We believe that this is unfair,” the report said. It added: "There can be no doubt that the introduction of fees has resulted in a significant reduction in the number of cases brought."

Now, the government has been forced to concede. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Unison’s argument that the government acted unlawfully in introducing the fees. The judges said fees were set so high, they had “a deterrent effect upon discrimination claims” and put off more genuine cases than the flimsy claims the government was trying to deter.

Shortly after the judgement, the Ministry of Justice said it would stop charging employment tribunal fees immediately and refund those who had paid. This bill could amount to £27m, according to Unison estimates. 

As for Janes, she hopes low-paid workers will feel more confident to challenge unfair work practices. “For people in the future it is good news,” she says. “It gives everybody the chance to make that claim.” 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.