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.

Photo: Getty Images
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What do Labour's lost voters make of the Labour leadership candidates?

What does Newsnight's focus group make of the Labour leadership candidates?

Tonight on Newsnight, an IpsosMori focus group of former Labour voters talks about the four Labour leadership candidates. What did they make of the four candidates?

On Andy Burnham:

“He’s the old guard, with Yvette Cooper”

“It’s the same message they were trying to portray right up to the election”​

“I thought that he acknowledged the fact that they didn’t say sorry during the time of the election, and how can you expect people to vote for you when you’re not actually acknowledging that you were part of the problem”​

“Strongish leader, and at least he’s acknowledging and saying let’s move on from here as opposed to wishy washy”

“I was surprised how long he’d been in politics if he was talking about Tony Blair years – he doesn’t look old enough”

On Jeremy Corbyn:

"“He’s the older guy with the grey hair who’s got all the policies straight out of the sixties and is a bit of a hippy as well is what he comes across as” 

“I agree with most of what he said, I must admit, but I don’t think as a country we can afford his principles”

“He was just going to be the opposite of Conservatives, but there might be policies on the Conservative side that, y’know, might be good policies”

“I’ve heard in the paper he’s the favourite to win the Labour leadership. Well, if that was him, then I won’t be voting for Labour, put it that way”

“I think he’s a very good politician but he’s unelectable as a Prime Minister”

On Yvette Cooper

“She sounds quite positive doesn’t she – for families and their everyday issues”

“Bedroom tax, working tax credits, mainly mum things as well”

“We had Margaret Thatcher obviously years ago, and then I’ve always thought about it being a man, I wanted a man, thinking they were stronger…  she was very strong and decisive as well”

“She was very clear – more so than the other guy [Burnham]”

“I think she’s trying to play down her economics background to sort of distance herself from her husband… I think she’s dumbing herself down”

On Liz Kendall

“None of it came from the heart”

“She just sounds like someone’s told her to say something, it’s not coming from the heart, she needs passion”

“Rather than saying what she’s going to do, she’s attacking”

“She reminded me of a headteacher when she was standing there, and she was quite boring. She just didn’t seem to have any sort of personality, and you can’t imagine her being a leader of a party”

“With Liz Kendall and Andy Burnham there’s a lot of rhetoric but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of direction behind what they’re saying. There seems to be a lot of words but no action.”

And, finally, a piece of advice for all four candidates, should they win the leadership election:

“Get down on your hands and knees and start praying”

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.