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Ed Miliband is about to have the burden of defending the EU foisted on him. Is he ready?

By standing up for Britain’s right to a credible voice in Europe, the Labour leader can take the more prime ministerial path.

The Conservatives have made it easy for Labour to like the European Union. The opposition could hardly fail to be fond of something that has tormented successive Tory leaders. During the New Labour years, hatred of Brussels was treated as just another symptom of the reactionary sulk that made the Tories look as if they hated the modern world. With Europhobia owned by the un­electable right, the left settled into a complacent Europhilia.

Gordon Brown was warier of grand European ambitions than Tony Blair. As chan­cellor, he strangled any prospect of Britain joining the euro. But both men accepted without question the economic necessity of EU membership; neither felt obliged to proselytise for that view. That complacency is unavailable to Ed Miliband.

Shift towards scepticism

David Cameron belongs to a generation of Tories who have no natural affection for the European project and no vocabulary to defend it. Now, he is skewing his foreign policy in deference to the most Brussels-baiting element in his party. In a speech later this month, Cameron is expected to promise that a majority Conservative government would hold a referendum that includes, as one of the options, leaving the EU altogether.

That poll may seem distant but the declaration of intent changes everything. Once Cameron has declared the current arrangement unacceptable, exit becomes instantly less remote. Just as quickly, Miliband risks being cast as Britain’s lead advocate of the status quo. That is not where he wants to be. Even the mistiest-eyed Europhile recognises that the EU needs drastic reform.

No one who has worked with Miliband doubts his pro-European credentials. As the son of Jewish refugees from the Nazis, he has visceral respect for a project that was designed to bury murderous European nationalisms. One close shadow cabinet colleague describes him as “perhaps Labour’s most pro-European leader ever”.

The caveat is that Miliband is in no hurry to spend his limited stock of political capital trying to redeem the reputation of something the public neither likes nor cares much about. The Labour leader has his work cut out persuading swing voters that he is a down-to-earth bloke who gets their concerns about welfare and immigration. Telling them they are wrong about Europe is not in the script.

In his only major speech on the subject last November, Miliband acknowledged that British hostility to Brussels was born of reasonable concerns that are too often belittled by pious Europhiles. The speech came just a few weeks after Labour helped Tory rebels defeat the government in a motion demanding a cut to Britain’s contribution to the EU budget. The two episodes were widely seen as a co-ordinated shift towards scepticism.

In truth, they sprang from different motives. The speech, drafted in close collaboration with Stewart Wood, one of Miliband’s closest strategic advisers, was a statement of long-term ambition to rehabilitate the pro-European argument from first principles. By contrast, siding with Tory anti-EU hard­liners in parliament was a tactical jab at Cameron. It was a manoeuvre that not everyone in the shadow cabinet admired but in which most found some merit. For squeamish pro-Europeans, many of whom are also concerned about Labour’s reputation for wasting public money, it was at least a chance to vote for something obviously frugal.

Aside from a handful of maverick backbenchers, there is little real hostility to the EU in the Labour ranks. Ed Balls acquired a moderate Eurosceptic streak when, at Gordon Brown’s side, he devised ways to keep Britain out of the single currency. The more ardent Labour pro-Europeans view Balls’s residual scepticism as the allergic reaction of a Brown acolyte to any position that was once associated with Blair. Some wonder whether Miliband’s Europhile impulses might end up dampened by the same tendency.

The first question for Miliband after Cameron delivers his long-hyped speech later this month is bound to be whether he will match the Prime Minister’s commitment to a referendum. Currently, he has no intention of doing so. Labour’s planned response is to denounce the Tory leader for taking a reckless gamble with Britain’s economic and diplomatic credibility and for putting fear of backbench rebellion ahead of the national interest.

As a pitch for the headlines, that rebuttal has the weakness of sophistication. It requires auxiliary explanations about the way investors react badly when Britain loiters at the EU exit. Yet, as an analysis, it has the virtue of being true. It reflects the influence of Douglas Alexander, who has consistently counselled against loose referendum talk. The shadow foreign secretary takes the view that flaunting Britain’s readiness to quit the EU when fellow leaders are busy managing an economic crisis is poor diplomacy and self-defeating strategy. It is hard to influence reforms that are on the agenda while insisting on a “repatriation” of powers that no other country wants to discuss.

Crown prince

The Prime Minister knows that is true but can’t say so. Instead, he will launch Britain into a phoney referendum war. With no date set for the poll and no clarity about the membership terms on offer, the argument will swirl around the broader question of whether, ultimately, we are an EU country or not. So even if he refuses to back a referendum on Tory terms, Miliband will be anointed crown prince of an undeclared “yes” campaign.

It is a role rich in hazard and opportunity. No politician flings himself eagerly against the tide of public opinion (with the salutary exception of Nick Clegg). At the same time, Cameron’s referendum punt is an abdication of governing responsibility in favour of party management. It is a tactical swerve befitting an opposition leader. That gives Miliband a chance to do the one thing at which he is most consistently accused of failing: by standing up for Britain’s right to a credible voice in Europe, the Labour leader can take the more prime ministerial path.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 14 January 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Dinosaurs vs modernisers