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2 February 2016

Ignore David Cameron’ deal. Labour must make its own case for Europe

The Prime Minister is preoccupied with his own party. Let's keep focussing on the real issues.

By Richard Howitt

There is still a lot of politics to come in the run-up to what is now almost certain to be a June referendum on Britain’s continued membership of the European Union.

But a first reaction to today’s publication of a draft UK-EU ‘deal’, is that we should deal with it on its merits, and reinforce Labour’s resolute case for remaining in the European Union by underlining that we are more committed to reform in Europe than David Cameron – not less.

These are proposals on which British civil servants have continuously briefed British Labour MEPs.

To some extent, Labour proposed some of the reforms even before Cameron himself, including for more powers for national parliaments, new impetus towards economic competitiveness, on protecting non-Euro countries in any further moves towards bringing the Eurozone closer together and in reforming eligibility for child benefits and rights of access by workers from countries newly joining the EU.

Therefore, in the British national interest, Labour should support these reforms as largely right in principle, and not allow false credit for David Cameron on ideas which were always genuinely cross-party in origin.

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The proposals for an ’emergency brake’ in awarding in-work benefits to EU migrants was always the one which was most sensitive to Labour values and principles, and I will not try to hide have given me serious misgivings.

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Nevertheless an equivalent ’emergency brake’ already exists to free movement provisions for countries inside the ‘Schengen’ area for borderless travel, so – by analogy – there is a case for extending it to non-Schengen countries including Britain in relation to the benefits system.

The square brackets in today’s text are the typical device used in negotiating international agreements to leave flexibility for further negotiation, and Labour should exert our own pressure to secure a compromise based on fairness to all.

This note is being written after reading the text and with no prior notice.

Compare what I hope are my own constructive comments to the squeals of anguish from Conservative and UKIP Eurosceptics today, which were scripted long ago, for whom no ‘British deal’ could satisfy their anti-EU prejudices.

Their criticisms are given little credence when the draft decision specifically states it is ‘legally binding’, commits to future EU Treaty Change, and contains concrete commitments to legislative change.

On the most sensitive point of the ‘safeguard clause’, there is a genuinely unexpected text that there is a “clear expectation” the mechanism “can and will be used.”

‘Leave’ campaigners in Britain will also find it difficult to dismiss the long list of British derogations listed in the letter of the President of the European Council including on the Euro, on borderless travel, on justice and security, on police and judicial cooperation and on the non-application of the Charter of Fundamental Rights in British courts.

Eurosceptics will smart that there is the offer of a specific new Treaty opt-out for Britain to any greater ‘political integration’, and to reinforce that ‘national security’ is underlined as being excluded from European Union competence.

For many in the Labour Party, we regret excessive British exceptionalism.

But, as Jeremy Corbyn made quite clear in one of his first statements after being elected as leader, we will never “walk away” from the European Union but introduce manifesto commitments to reverse reforms with which we do not agree.

Reform must never be defined by David Cameron but remains the true preserve of Labour and our Socialist and Social Democrat allies across Europe.

More Social Europe, higher environmental standards, genuine integration of human rights, movements towards full employment, social enterprise and fair trade, are the true areas of reform which we will continue to pursue.

But we will only be able to do so, if our allies of today remain our partners for tomorrow.

So the right reaction to today’s package is indeed one which should be constructive, but one which avoids David Cameron setting the terms for the referendum for those of us on the Left.

We will remain pro-EU for Labour reasons and leave David Cameron to the problems of his own party.