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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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.