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10 November 2014updated 22 Jul 2021 5:51am

Is the Labour party prepared to up its game on the EU?

With Ukip’s noisy presence in the European Parliament, and Tory euroscepticism rampant at home, is Labour prepared to speak sense on Britain’s EU membership?

By Anoosh Chakelian

Tory euroscepticism is rampant in Britain. Ukip has a significant and noisy presence in the European Parliament. It’s now up to the Labour party to communicate some sense on the subject of Britain’s EU membership, both in Europe and to British voters.

But will it?

Today, MPs will vote whether or not to opt back in to the European Arrest Warrant. It’s been a vote the Tories have attempted to dodge and postpone, due to many of their eurosceptic backbenchers planning a rebellion. It is also a tough situation for them because Ukip, which is poised to defeat them in next week’s by-election, also opposes opting in to the Warrant.

Labour’s response has been to condemn David Cameron and Theresa May for “ducking and diving” to avoid the vote. The shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper said:

Why can’t they just be straight with people? We need the European Arrest Warrant and we should vote for it. With all this tricky game-playing it’s no wonder people don’t trust David Cameron on Europe.

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Now the vote is approaching, it is the Labour party’s opportunity to speak louder and with more conviction about the benefits in general of the EU and such directives for the UK. However, I hear that the Labour MEPs, and Labour’s operation in Europe in general, are having a tough time countering denigration of the EU on two fronts: in Europe, by Ukip politicians, and domestically, by the Tories.

A European Parliamentary Labour Party insider tells me about the challenge Ukip’s increased numbers and action in the European Parliament poses for Labour:

“We really need to start paying attention to them now. They used to just turn up, have some drinks and take the money, but now they’re being more constructively destructive. They table far more amendments, lots of proposals for cutting the budget, and stand up and go on big rants. We have to start communicating why what they say about Europe is wrong.”

According to my source, Labourites in Europe are “relieved” that the national party has “finally cottoned on” to the threat of Ukip, rather than simply assuming it is a useful force for damaging the Tory vote. “Obviously seeing Nigel Farage first-hand, we’ve been warning them [Ed Miliband’s team] about this for a long time,” they tell me.

However, apparently Labour’s MEPs find it difficult to rival the attention given to Ukip in the European Parliament, because they are more preoccupied with “actually doing some parliamentary work” than standing up and making tubthumping Farage-style speeches.

Then there is Labour’s dilemma domestically. David Cameron has had to grapple with some tricky EU-related situations recently, at a time when his support among his own eurosceptic MPs, and Ukip-leaning voters, has arguably never been more vulnerable.

First, there is the concern of a surprise surcharge of £1.7bn issued to the UK government by the EU. An embarrassing matter in which Cameron had to admit he’d been kept in the dark, and his fighting talk about tackling the EU budget lost substantial credibility.

Second is the upcoming Commons vote on the European Arrest Warrant (EAW). There are many eurosceptic Conservative MPs who are gearing up to vote against the government opting back in to the EAW, such as Dominic Raab who spoke on the BBC’s Today programme this morning. This is in spite of the Home Secretary Theresa May warning that ditching the EAW would make Britain a “honeypot” for European fugitives.

Labour in Europe are unsure how to approach the Tories’ dilemma on this vote. Criticising Cameron for pandering to Ukip and being a “right-wing xenophobe” would be at odds with praising him for making decisions that “are in the best interests of the European project”, but they are unsure which approach is most politically effective.

One step towards Labour addressing the politics of the European Union with conviction is the recent appointment of Pat McFadden MP to the position of shadow Europe minister. A respected frontbencher during the New Labour years, and a Blairite, it is thought that McFadden’s political background, having worked on the BIS brief, means he will make a convincing business case for staying in the EU. The connections he made in the business world are also inspiring confidence in the European PLP: “his record is contacts,” says my source.

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