Labour and the EU: From realpolitik to principle?

Since David Cameron called for a referendum on Europe, it would appear that the issue of Europe has subsided somewhat. And yet, there is a distinct danger that the approach taken by the Prime Minister’s opposite number, Ed Miliband, is beginning to create antagonism within Labour. Cameron’s referendum pledge means that the position of the Labour Party towards Europe has been questioned – to such an extent that it is possible that the issue could damage the Party’s electoral chances. This is because Labour’s position is based on realpolitik, not principle. At a time of intense debate about the very nature of the European Union, it is more important than ever that a Labour policy based on principle, as opposed to pragmatism, comes to the fore. First, however, it is worth teasing out why a tension could emerge within the Party.

Let’s rewind time back to the 1960s. The UK was not part of the then European Economic Community, having been snubbed by a veto courtesy of the French. The Labour leadership was not unhappy about this because it saw the EEC as nothing more than a ‘capitalist club’. In 1962, the Leader of the Opposition, Hugh Gaitskell, exclaimed that a federal Europe would mean: ‘the end of Britain as an independent European state, the end of a thousand years of history!’. [1] For Labour, what was at stake here was more than just national sovereignty. Rather, the Party argued that the EEC would further the interests of capitalists alone. For those reasons two reasons, Labour fought for a ‘no’ vote on Europe in 1976, and opposed Margaret Thatcher’s support for the EU in the early 1980s. However, as the 1980s drew to a close, the Conservative Party and the Labour Party switched position. The European project turned emphasis away from a common market, which would be fully implemented by the early 1990s, and instead emphasised pan-European welfare, including employment rights and a commitment to a better standard of living. The Labour Party looked across the Channel and saw that in mainland Europe broadly left-of-centre policies flourished. At this point, Labour opted to support the EU because it has economic and social benefits for the UK. [2]

Back to 2013, and the orthodox Labour support for Europe has come under significant pressure. The pledge by David Cameron to hold a referendum on the EU has caused an EU-induced schizophrenia: first, Ed Miliband rules out a referendum on Europe; second, Ed Balls makes the opposite claim. This confusion suggests that Labour needs to rebuild its strategy on Europe. Most importantly, and probably uncomfortable for some, Labour must call for a referendum on Europe. Once it has done this, Labour will be able to shape the agenda on the future of Europe by asking two questions:

1. What should Europe stand for? There are three principles:

  • Democracy. European democracy should rest with the European Parliament, on the one hand, and a European President, on the other hand. This would ensure national representation through two input-based mechanisms. The EU must do more than preach democracy, it must begin to practise it too.
  • Economic and Social Prosperity. One of the overriding positive impacts of the EU is that it will help to stimulate national economies. This is the major output-based mechanism that needs attention. The EU must be able to do less on a European-wide level, and support national economies instead. For this reason, Ed Balls and Douglas Alexander were right to call for a real-terms cut in the EU budget. The EU should become an association of national economies that supports employment rights and better living standards.
  • Subsidiarity. Power must be devolved to the most local institution possible. This goes to the heart of democratic power and also remains a prerequisite for economic prosperity. This is because it will give European peoples a sense of ownership. All of this means that the EU become multi-level and multi-sectoral – a dynamic system that sees clusters of shared policy-making.

2. How can these principles be implemented? Here are some specific policies:

  • Democratic powers must be based on a directly elected president for the whole of the EU; but the European Parliament should become the sole initiator of European legislation (exceptions would be inter-governmental treaties to be scrutinised by national parliaments).
  • The overall size of the EU needs to be slimmed down through a smaller Commission; the removal of the European Common Agricultural and Fisheries Policies (CAP and CFP respectively); no more moving back-and-forth from Strasbourg and Brussels; and a salary freeze for MEPs and bureaucrats. This will allow for a real-terms budget cut.
  • Resources should support national economies and protect employment rights – this could include a guarantee of apprenticeships, placement schemes and more. This is hugely important to develop cultural and economic ties throughout Europe.
  • To safeguard subsidiarity, we need a more powerful Conference of European Affairs Committees (COSAC), which would meet more often to hold EU decision-makers to account. The UK Parliament should establish a Parliamentary Committee on Europe that brings together MPs, peers and UK MEPs to debate EU issues of major importance. It would be accountable to the UK Parliament, but also send representation to the EU.

This is what Labour must stand for. It must ensure that the principles given above remain at the heart of the European project in order to pave the way for a new European settlement that calls for a slim, dynamic association of national economies and not for a corpulent, bureaucratic union.

mg

Notes

[1] M. Charlton (1983) The Price of Victory, London: BBC, p.274.

[2] I’ve drawn this analysis from a BBC podcast by Analysis, called ‘Labour, the left and Europe’ (29 October 2012).

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