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.