Labour and the EU: in/out, but shake it all about
Anthony Painter has an interesting article up at Labour List about Labour, and the possibility of an EU referendum if it comes to power in 2015.
It’s good that the debate is now being had (I had first say on it a couple of weeks ago, but it does take other blogs a while to catch up), but I disagree wholly with Anthony when he advises the Labour leadership thus
Act irresponsibly and the consequences could be severe. This is one of the moments when indecision is justified. Don’t play political games with the national interest.
With this, he’s a bit too close for comfort to Alex Massie’s sneering rubbish at the Spectator:
The Better Off Outers at least have a respectable case for their beliefs and, rather importantly, actually believe Britain would be better off outside the EU…….That can’t be said of a party that so obviously makes a game of what might be thought quite an important issue.
a) The European Union is not what it was pre-2008;
b) By consequence of a), it is perfectly admissible for the Labour party to adopt a wholly different stance to the EU from the one adopted in 1974, and that it does not need to be bound by its previous support for EU membership;
c) This would not be playing games with the national interest, the electorate, or anything else; it would be developing a coherent political position to put to the electorate.
So, I’m sure readers will be asking, if I had the Labour leadership’s ear like Anthony has the Labour leadership’s ear, what would I advise and why?
My advice to Ed and Jon would go something like this.
First, clarify why Labour thinks a referendum in 2018 or so would be a good idea. This is because, in the wake of both the 2008 crash and the Lisbon Treaty (1), the European Union is markedly different from the one that British voters chose to join and then remain in.
This is the opportunity to differentiate Labour from the Tories over Europe. Labour should be openly critical of the way the institutions of the European Union has been hijacked by the Right to set disastrous neoliberal policies in law.
Unless this can be changed in the 2014-18 period, Labour should say, then it may well be that Britain will be better off outside the EU.
Second, make clear that for the reasons set out above Labour has not yet decided what position it will take when it comes to a referendum.
The reason Labour wants to defer a referendum to 2018 or so is not because it is ‘playing games’, but because it is developing a clear strategy to engage with other centre-left governments and parties in Europe to change what how the EU operates; only when it has had a chance to do this will it be in a position to decide whether in or out is in the national interest.
In short, Labour should be showing that it’s leading the charge to change European institutions for the better, not simply accept it for what the Right has made it.
Third, recognise that 2018 is a long way away for voters. After all, around 8-10% of people voting now will be dead by then.
Thus, a 2018 referendum promise must be tied explicitly to the 2014 European parliamentary elections. Labour should be stressing right now how important these elections are; the national parties that make up the Party of European Socialists (PES) has a real opportunity to take an overall majority in Strasbourg, and with that majority comes the opportunity to amend European law currently stacked against the working class/ordinary people/the poor. (2)
Fourth, the importance of the 2014 election should in turn be linked to Labour’s selection process for those elections, likely to take place later this year/early 2013.
As a display of strong leadership combined with evidence that Europe really, really matters to Labour now, Ed Miliband should take to conference plans to rejig the selection process in the way Jon Worth suggests i.e. by opening up the list to non-incumbents as part of wider process to re-energize Labour’s team in Strasbourg for a parliamentary period when fundamental battles will be fought about the nature of Europe’s institutions.
It is an indictment of the current system that someone like Jon, a socialist who has lived and breathed Europe for a decade, feels he has absolutely no chance of being selected, primarily because he’s actually spent his time in Europe rather than oiling the selection wheels in London.
In summary, Labour needs to be bold on Europe, and go much further, much sooner, than the first tentative steps it has taken in the right direction. It needs to see itself as a pro-active force on Europe, aggressively differentiating its own pro-activity from the reactionary little-Englander nonsenses of the Tories.
Labour (and the commentators who support it) need to stop worrying that an EU referendum will ‘define’ Labour’s first parliamentary term (assumed to be in some way for the worse), and instead be confident that it will be seen by voters as an integral part of strong Labour party project.
Labour needs to enunciate clearly that Europe is not currently working for working class people, because its institutions have been captured by the Right, and it needs to have a clear plan for their recapture by the Left. This is not an anti-Europe stance. This is an anti-rightwing Europe stance.
Labour needs to be clear on what it means by European democracy, and it needs to put in place the right people to make European democracy work.
Finally, Labour needs to ensure that what Europe does now, and what it can do, is understood by the electorate, primarily through the prism of the financial mess we’re in now. People now ‘get’ Europe, in a way they didn’t in 2008. Labour’s job is to build on that new consciousness.
(1) In particular, Labour should focus on the need for a (centre)-left led redrafting of the Lisbon Treaty.
At the heart of the mush-that-is-now-Europe is the establishment of the Council of Ministers as a decision and law-making body in direct competition with the European parliament, as evidenced that we now have two sets of laws concerned with fiscal management of the Union – one an (unratified) intergovernmental treaty in the form of the Fiscal Compact, and the other the ‘six pack’ of regulations already made law by the European parliament. Officially the European Commission says that these will work ‘in parallel’, but in reality they reflect a power struggle between two competing ideas of what European-level democracy is supposed to be.
Labour should therefore be clear that it favours the European Parliament as the supreme lawmaking body, while also making it clear that it is committed to ensuring that it has the best possible MEP team in there, rather than allowing the (strong) perception to continue that being a Labour MEP is a ‘gravy-train’ job for people who have served the party loyally.
Part of this overall process should be a strong commitment – noticeably lacking to date – to the PES ‘fundamental programme’ review and ensuing manifesto development, such that all PES parties across Europe enter the 2014 election with a common manifesto for socialist change in a bold attempt to make the elections something other than a mid-term referendum on domestic government.
(2) I have already covered two areas of European law that I think should be subject to radical socialist amendment in the event of a PES majority in 2014. Of course there are others (notably around sustainable agriculture and the CAP) but I’d want to see these at the top of my new-style MEP’s priority list.
First, and as noted above, the six-pack regulations on the implementation of the Stability & Growth Pact, which currently enshrine in law neoliberal economic orthodoxy, should be dismantled and replaced with a set of Keynesian prescriptions for management of the economic cycle (or the law simply annulled and macro-economic management handed back to national governments in the event of the end of the euro).
Second, PES should impose through its majority the amendments it failed to get through in 2011 on the human rights safeguards needed when it comes to the development of (free) trade with the developing world.
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