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  1. Election 2024
18 January 2016

Labour’s thinking on Europe has to be about more than just “staying In“

Labour cannot leave the question of reforming the EU to the right. 

By Adam Swersky

 “We must build a kind of United States of Europe. In this way only will hundreds of millions of toilers be able to regain the simple joys and hopes which make life worth living.”

Winston Churchill, the author of this grand European vision, did not see Britain as being part of “Team USE”. Yet it was his Conservative successor Edward Heath who took us in; Margaret Thatcher who signed the Single European Act; and John Major who sealed the deal with Maastricht.

Despite the ructions on the Treasury benches, David Cameron’s position on Europe is no different from his three Conservative predecessors. He may make the noises of an angry driver revving up in reverse gear, but the parking brake is firmly in place. In the upcoming referendum, David Cameron will be out in front, waving the EU flag.  

For all the trouble it offers them from Eurosceptic colleagues, why then do Conservative leaders continually favour staying part of the club?

It’s simple. For all their frustrations with it, the right knows exactly what they want from the European project: a large, tariff-free, deregulated trading bloc; a bulwark against Franco-German dominance; and clout with the United States.

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Which explains Cameron’s reform agenda: brakes on freedom of movement; a single market – but not in financial services; and consumer and environmental protections sacrificed on the altar of “competitiveness” and a trans-Atlantic free trade zone.

Where does that leave Labour? Throughout the tumult on the government’s side, one thing has remained constant: Labour will officially be voting to stay.

Though not every Labour MP goes to bed singing “Ode to Joy”, long gone are the days when Europe was seen as a banker’s club. Since the 1980s, the left has largely welcomed the EU as an opportunity to achieve social and environmental goals over a massive territory, while strengthening solidarity with left-leaning neighbours.

So firm has been Labour’s commitment that Ed Miliband went into the last election promising to resist calls for a poll on the issue. After all, the Tory strategy is akin to telling your spouse she needs to change her ways or face divorce, not an obvious route to building a more positive relationship.

But inherent in Labour’s unconditional support for Britain’s EU membership is a nagging risk. If Labour is “in” under any circumstances, does that mean it’s happy with the status quo?

By focusing on the issue of membership itself, we have ceded the content of the renegotiation to Cameron alone. Even if our opportunity to influence the upcoming deal is minimal, Labour needs a view on what it is about the EU we really value. And it needs a vision for what Europe should become, not just this year but in decades ahead.

What makes this especially important is the low-ball nature of Cameron’s asks. A fight over the precise number of years we can withhold benefits from working migrants hardly seems worthy of an epic battle. Threatening your spouse with divorce is one thing – doing so over her refusal to squeeze the toothpaste from the bottom of the tube is quite another.

So what should Labour’s European dream look like? The answer will need to address three progressive questions.

First, how can the EU again become a venue for social progress? It’s no coincidence that the Social Chapter of the Maastricht Treaty has been a political hot potato, with Major and Cameron against, and Blair and Brown signing Britain up.

The EU has been responsible for a vast range of social and environmental protections, applying equally across a region of 450 million people. This amounts to possibly the greatest modern leap in the human condition outside of China. The question for Labour is where this goes next, and how Europe can continue to play a leading role on the most pressing global social and environmental issues of our time, in particular climate change.

Second, how can the EU help develop a fair and just economy? TTIP, the grand US-Europe trade deal, is perhaps the climax of three decades of focus on deepening the single market to the point where many fear it now threatens our most treasured national institutions, such as the NHS. A Labour vision would not only offer caution in areas such as trade, but would actively strive for a more equal Europe – one where a race to the bottom on corporation tax was replaced by continental coherence on issues like financial regulation.

Finally, what is the EU’s role in defending national and international security? European nations face growing threats from terrorism and a resurgent Russia, as well as major challenges to manage the flow of refugees. Hauling up the drawbridge is a 19th century answer to problems that can only be managed through international cooperation. It is perverse to argue that the EU’s shortcomings on these issues are a result of too much integration. If anything, these are areas where our fate and that of our neighbours is fundamentally interlinked, calling for more coordination, not less.

In the coming months, we will hear much about one vision of Europe – the one that Cameron has crafted after his victorious reforms. Labour will back him and the campaign to remain. It must do so with another vision in mind, a vision of Europe as a progressive project whose ultimate aim is delivering justice, fairness, and security for all. 

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