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Leader: The Owen referendum plan on Europe is the right one

Britain's place in Europe needs to be resolved.

The eurozone that emerges from the crisis will be unrecognisable from its present configuration. Whether or not Greece, Spain and Portugal relinquish their membership of the single currency, the likelihood is that it will survive, accompanied by a fiscal union of euro countries. In the form of the German-scripted “fiscal compact”, which would impose stringent limits on Keynesian deficit spending by member states, the process is already under way. As Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, told her party earlier this year, “Step by step, European politics is merging with domestic politics.” Eurosceptics, too, acknowledge that “ever-closer union” is Europe’s destiny. David Cameron and George Osborne are fond of referring to the “remorseless logic” of monetary union leading to fiscal union. On that, they are correct.

The implications for British politics are profound. The UK has long had a semi-detached relationship with the EU by virtue of its non-membership of the single currency and the Schengen Area. The risk now is that British influence will be diluted as the core members use the pan-European institutions to alter the terms of the single market, something Mr Cameron is powerless to prevent. Should this happen, the arguments in favour of withdrawal from the European Union would  gather force.

In a column in this week's New Statesman, David Owen, the former Labour foreign secretary and leader of the Social Democratic Party,  says that a referendum on Britain’s relationship with the EU is “inevitable”. The Conservatives, mindful of the poll bounce they enjoyed following Mr Cameron’s “veto” of the revised Lisbon Treaty last December in Brussels, are expected to commit to one in their 2015 manifesto. Tory strategists are keen to neutralise the increasing electoral threat from the populist UK Independence Party (Ukip), which cost the party as many as 21 seats at the last general election (there were 21 constituencies in which the Ukip vote exceeded the Labour majority). Should a second-term Conservative-led government fail to extract sufficient concessions from Brussels, it is no longer inconceivable that it could stage a Yes/No referendum on EU membership. The Liberal Democrats have previously pledged to hold such a vote “the next time the British government signs up for a fundamental change in the relationship between the UK and the EU”.

Yet, as Lord Owen writes, there is another option to “federalism or bust” – “restructuring” Europe. If the argument in favour of pragmatic reform is to prevail, it is vital for the Labour Party to make its intentions clear now. The alternative, Lord Owen writes, is that it will trail “behind public opinion close to the 2015 general election and will be forced to make a desperate bid to halt the Conservative Party”. Jon Cruddas, who is now leading Labour’s policy review, has argued for a referendum on full withdrawal from the EU. “At certain stages, the political classes should invite the people into the discussion that affects their everyday lives,” he said.

Yet it is probable that such a vote would be lost, with disastrous consequences for Britain’s international standing. In spite of its present woes, the EU has been largely a force for good. It has brought peace to a continent once ravaged by war, transformed eastern Europe and the former Mediterranean dictatorships, and vastly expanded trade and prosperity.

The onus is, therefore, on Ed Miliband to identify a compromise acceptable to both his party and the British electorate. The greatest danger is that the debate remains polarised between federalists and hard sceptics, with the sceptics emerging triumphant each time. There is a patriotic and hard-headed case to be made for sustained British engagement with Europe. It is time for Labour to make it.

Read David Owen's article in New Statesman on Britain and Europe here

This article first appeared in the 11 June 2012 issue of the New Statesman, A-Z of Iran

The Prime Minister still has questions to answer about his plans for Syria

Cameron needs a better plan for Syria than mere party-politicking, says Ian Lucas.

I was unfortunate enough to hear our Prime Minister discussing the vexed issue of military action in Syria on the Today programme yesterday. It was a shocking experience - David Cameron simply cannot resist trying to take party political advantage of an extremely serious crisis. It is quite clear that there are massive humanitarian, military and political issues at stake in Syria. A number of international and national powers including the United States and Russia are taking military action within Syria and David Cameron said in the broadest terms that he thought that the UK should do so too.

The questions then arise - what should we do, and why should we do it?

Let me make it clear that I do believe there are circumstances in which we should take military action - to assist in issues which either affect this country's national interest and defence, or which are so serious as to justify immediate action on humanitarian grounds. It is for the Prime Minister, if he believes that such circumstances are in place, to make the case.

The Prime Minister was severely shaken by the vote of the House of Commons to reject military action against President Assad in 2013. This was a military course which was decided upon in a very short time scale, in discussion with allies including France and the United States.

As we all know, Parliament, led by Ed Miliband’s Labour Opposition and supported by a significant number of Conservative MPs, voted against the Government’s proposals. David Cameron's reaction to that vote was one of immediate petulance. He ruled out military action, actually going beyond the position of most of his opponents. The proposed action against Assad action was stressed at the time by President Obama to be very limited in scope and directed specifically against the use of chemical weapons. It was not intended to lead to the political end of President Assad and no argument was made by the governments either in the United States or in the UK that this was an aim. What was proposed was short, sharp military action to deal specifically with the threat of chemical weapons. Following the vote in the House of Commons, there was an immediate reaction from both United States and France. I was an Opposition spokesman at the time, and at the beginning of the week, when the vote was taken, France was very strident in its support for military action. The House of Commons vote changed the position immediately and the language that was used by President Obama, by John Kerry and others .

The chemical weapons threat was the focus of negotiation and agreement, involving Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov and his connections with Syria.  The result was that Assad agreed to dispense with chemical weapons on a consensual basis and no military action took place.

David Cameron felt humiliated by this outcome and loses no opportunity to suggest that the decision was wrong.  He is determined that he should revisit the issue of bombing in Syria, though now action there has elided to action against Islamic State. He has delegated Michael Fallon to prepare the ground for a vote on military action in Parliament. Fallon is the most political of Defence Secretaries - before he became a minister he was regularly presented by the Conservative party as its attack dog against Labour. He gives me the impression of putting the Conservative Party’s interest, at all times, above the national interest. Nothing in his tenure at Defence has changed my view of him.

I was therefore very sceptical what when, in September, Fallon suggested that there should be briefings of members of Parliament to inform us of the latest position on Syria. It turns out that I was right - at the Conservative party conference, Mr Fallon has been referring to these briefings as part of the process that is changing minds in the House of Commons towards taking military action in Syria. He is doubtless taking his orders from the Prime Minister, who is determined to have a vote on taking part in military action in Syria, this time against Islamic State.  

If the Prime Minister wishes to have the support of the House of Commons for military action he needs to answer the following questions: 

What is the nature of the action that he proposes?

What additional impact would action by the UK have, above and beyond that undertaken by the United States and France?

What is the difference in principle between military action in Syria by the UK and military action in Syria by Russia?

What would be the humanitarian impact of such action?

What political steps would follow action and what political strategy does the government have to resolve the Syrian crisis?

The reality is that the United States, UK, France and other western powers have been hamstrung on Syria by their insistence Assad should go. This situation has continued for four years now and there is no end in sight.

The Prime Minister and his Defence Secretary have yet to convince me that additional military action in Syria, this time by the United Kingdom, would help to end Syria's agony and stem the human tragedy that is the refugee crisis engulfing the region and beyond. If the Prime Minister wishes to have support from across the House of Commons, he should start behaving like the Prime Minister of a nation with responsibilities on the United Nations Security Council and stop behaving like a party politician who seeks to extract political advantage from the most serious of international situations.

Ian Lucas is the Labour MP for Wrexham.