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Cameron opens the way for a triple Labour victory

Update 3.30pm 23/01/2013: Miliband’s seemingly  statement that he doesn’t want an in/out referendum, this lunchtime at PMQs, merely highlights the need for the tactic advocated here: that whether Labour want it or not, Cameron’s earlier spineless legislation (European Union Act 2011) means that, if any progress is made to develop European treaties as set out below,  a referendum is a legal requirement.

So Cameron has promised a in/out referendum on membership of the European Union sometime in 2017.   Far from being “a pretty effective trap for Labour” (@philipoltermann), this should open the door for Labour both to confirm victory in the 2014 European elections, the 2015 general election, and then help change the European Union for the better via the in/out referendum.  A Labour triple whammy, courtesy of Cameron.  Sounds great?  Read on……

Let us assume, for a start, that Cameron follows through on the promise to draft referendum legislation before 2015, with a view to its enactment after the general election.  This, some pundits will say, is the main trap, because the Tories will be able to challenge Labour to a manifesto commitment on its enactment, claiming victory if it commits, claiming Labour is denying the people a voice if it doesn’t.

This, though, ignores the European Union Act 2011, enacted by Cameron as a panic measure to deflect from his early “cast-iron” commitment to referendum.  While the press have made the Act out to be a safeguard against powers being handed over to Europe without a referendum, section 4 of the Act covers a wide range of European treaty changes which, if agreed at intergovernmental level, will, by law, have to be presented to the British people in a referendum.  some of the changes requiring referendum have nothing to do with transfer of powers  Yet Cameron has today told us that he supports treaty change before an in/out referendum, in the context of his argument that such an in/out referendum needs to be delayed until the EU has got its house in order:

I agree too with what President Barroso and others have said. At some stage in the next few years the EU will need to agree on Treaty change to make the changes needed for the long term future of the Euro and to entrench the diverse, competitive, democratically accountable Europe that we seek. I believe the best way to do this will be in a new Treaty so I add my voice to those who are already calling for this.

Remarkably then, Cameron may find himself either having to use his veto on what he may consider to be good treaty changes, or being required, through a law made of his own spinelessness, calling a treaty-change referendum before an in/out referendum.

So far, so good.  Labour can simply argue that it is compelled by Cameron’s weakness on Europe to enact the draft legislation so as the avoid a farcical situation whereby a treaty-change referendum required under law becomes an in/out referendum by proxy, with a no vote on treaty change meaning a further vote becomes inevitable.

As I’ve set out earlier, a referendum on membership is, in any event, not a bad thing for Labour (on this I agree with Will Straw from IPPR).  The tactical battle won via Cameron’s own incompetence, Labour becomes free to engage with European partners post-2015 on the development of a social democratic alternative/revision to the Lisbon Treaty, and to flag up this pre-general election, and pre-2014 Euro elections, in a way which more clearly distinguishes it from the Tories on Europe than it has managed to date.  Francois Hollande will still be in office in 2015/6, Merkel may be in a weaker position to negotiate, and Spain, Italy, Portugal, Denmark and others have a more than 50% chance, I’d say, of having governments with whom Labour can do business on the development of a centre-left treaty to replace/modify Lisbon.  It is on the basis of a clearly better-for-the-people Treaty that Labour would then call the in/out referendum.

What would a revised, social democratic Lisbon Treaty look like?  Space/time does not permit a full exposition here, but I think six things should be top of the list, reflecting how different a social democratic Europe post-2019 (ie. after the 2019 Euro elections and a leftist majority might look):

1) The treaty should establish the primacy of the European Parliament as decision-making agenda-setting body, with the European Commission removed from its role as one of the three key bodies involved in the current co-decision making process, and developed into a ‘neutral’ civil service operating under democratic command.

This will set Labour and its fellow European parties aside from the Tories, who under Cameron have stated clearly (see PMQs in early January, and repeated again today) that the sole legitimate democratic voice in Europe is the intergovernmental European Council of heads of state, currently presided over by van Rompuy.  Labour should argue that the Parliament, as long as it reforms its election system away from the current regional list system towards one where each MEP represents  distinct constituency, is now the body with the expertise (and Commission support) and legitimacy that is needed to govern the European Union, albeit with due reference to intergovernmental institutions (not just the European Council but also the strangely similarly named Council of the European Union).

This is not just the right thing to do, as it brings into play the importance of parties working across Europe to establish a majority and then coherent policy within the Parliament; it is also tactically useful, because it allows Labour to go into the 2014 European elections on the basis that the Tories and UKIP are actually just putting up ‘gravy-train’ candidates to be members of an institution they don’t even believe in, while Labour candidates actually want to get some work done.

2) The new treaty should create the legal conditions in which the frankly absurd Stability and Growth Pact and the accompanying ‘six-pack’ directive, are subsequently abolished.  These directives are the ones which effectively outlaw Keynesianism by imposing ludicrous constraints on surplus/deficit spending.   The treaty should then set out an alternative framework under which member states are required to use their spending power to maintain and enhance levels of social security, employment and income equality.  Whether this should include numerical targets and some form of sanction for non-compliance, mirroring the surplus/deficit targets/sanctions set out under a neoliberal EU, is open to debate (currently I would favour such).

3) In keeping with this significant change in emphasis to the EU’s role and the legitimacy of the European Parliament, the new treaty should reverse the decision under Lisbon to remove democratic control of the European Central Bank from the Parliament.

4) The treaty should enhance the existing, but ignored provision in Lisbon, to vary single market conditions on a temporary basis so as to allow for a form of artificial devaluation in countries running behind the EU’s economic leaders in terms of citizen incomes in a way which promotes convergence without the self-defeating austerity measures currently being used for that task.  EU structural funds should be used to make this happen.

5) Reform of the Common Agricultural Policy in a way which a) gears subsidy to low wealth producers rather than to richer landowners who are able to use the income-based mechanism to rake in the cash; b) creates both long-term sustainability/reliability of supply, in a time of adverse climate change, and affordability i.e. the CAP should effectively become part of universal welfare provision around decent food.

6)  The restatement of the principle of free movement of labour, but with protection  from exploitation enhanced by the enactment of something similar to the UK’s Public Services (Social Value) Act 2012, but broadened to encompass existing EU procurement law and to cover multi-nationals.

If the Labour leadership gets its collective head round both the short-term tactics of using Cameron’s own reckless 2011 legislation against him, and then starts setting out its distinctive view of a new social democratic EU shaped by it and its fellow leftist parties, it stands to win the 2014 euros, then the general election against Cameron and then (best of all) a referendum Yes against a Tory party led in 2015 by Gove, or a Gove acolyte, which is campaigning for No vote.

Of course, if Labour doesn’t do that, I guess Philip Oltermann may be right…..

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