Labour and the Europe question

Leaving, the argument says, will be an act of economic self-harm. There is the prospect of leading businesses deciding to relocate if a split takes place. Mixed in with the warnings there is the suggestion of some reform if the status quo continues, perhaps the beginnings of a vow.

Ed Miliband has written and spoken about Britain’s membership of the EU over the past few days. Despite the proximity to the Rochester bye election and the just-concluded row over Britain’s financial contribution to the EU this is a forward-looking rather than tactical intervention. I’m Director of a think tank that was created shortly after the Berlin Wall came down and, yet as we mark the 25th anniversary of that event, pro-Europeans are in retreat. Miliband may be bidding to lead their fight back but the structure of the argument he uses is precisely the same as that used by the Better Together campaign in Scotland and this leaves two problems.

The first is that the economic argument in Scotland needed at the least the alibi of a cultural and emotional case for renewing the union. This latter part is entirely missing from Miliband’s case. The second is that the Scottish argument didn’t look anything like resolved until there was a referendum – which Miliband isn’t promising for the European issue – and perhaps even at that there’s a chance that the question of independence hasn’t gone away for more than a few years.

Is Labour in any way willing to deal with these two problems? On the first, while the focus of today’s article and speech is understandably the business case for European membership – given it’s the day of the CBI annual conference – Labour’s appetite for making the broader case is rarely apparent these days. Miliband came closest to making the other argument for a European union during the protests in Ukraine last year. He said it was vital that those protestors know that they can turn towards a set of European ideals and away from Russia in its present pose. But later in the same speech he repeated that it has been a mistake to give the rights of European citizens – such as free movement – so soon to the nationals of the new European periphery. If Miliband thinks there are cultural links between us then they seem quite slender.

Equally we haven’t seen much of him in European capitals with the other leaders of the centre left, not even as they themselves contend with modernising their politics and making a new case for Europe. Miliband’s intellectual interests – when stated – are American more than they are European. With that in mind it’s hard to believe that he or any Labour politician will produce the equivalent of Gordon Brown’s barn storming speech the week before the Scottish referendum and that’s a problem for winning the argument on British membership of the EU. If Project Fear dominates on the pro-Europe side, then the other side takes the monopoly on passion, wit and history.

The second problem with Miliband’s argument for British membership of the EU is that he isn’t asking us to hear him out and then make up our own minds. There is no referendum in the offing as there was in the Scottish case. And what’s more Miliband’s dividing line – that Cameron’s flirtation with the idea of leaving is in itself damaging and that Labour won’t make the same mistake – means that offering a referendum isn’t an option. So the case for membership has to be made without the case for membership being in question. When read in this way, Miliband’s argument for Europe becomes the same as Cameron’s – prudential, economic, with vague and perhaps undeliverable ideas of reform -and the only dimension in which it is distinctive – not offering a referendum – suggests a lack of confidence in the argument itself.

Yet there is at the margin a hint of something else. Miliband refers to the idea of completing the single market. He doesn’t go on to describe his priorities but the suggestion may be that when it comes right down to it he will state a positive direction for Europe, not merely defend a status quo. There is as yet no union of capital markets, which means that UK businesses may be missing out on the cheaper financing that easier flows of capital should bring about; and services markets aren’t as open as product markets – selfishly, the UK is highly competitive across the board in the former.

Neither of these reforms are cost-less – for example, operating a more perfect union in these new areas may require European-level regulation to replace national regulation; and a more radical future direction for Europe – such as resolving the question of when we offer membership to Ukraine and others on the periphery – would require most people to swallow even harder. However, in the absence of any spontaneous and positive sentiments about the shared history of European union, and without some better description of its future, Labour will struggle to give business the certainty about UK membership that Miliband has been promising today.


Related items:

Page 1 of 1