Labour and Europe, a complex relationship

Labour’s Unfinished Europe Business

13 September 2009

Getting policy, politics and principle into alignment is the 3-card trick of government and coherent party activity. Europe ought to be one of Labour’s strongest cards. As an internationalist party Europe is where we can give expression to the idea of working cooperatively beyond national borders. Of course Labour has a century of internationalist rhetoric and proclamation. We want to abolish poverty, global warming, sex slave trafficking and promote peace in the Middle East, democracy in Zimbabwe, human rights in Burma, and worker rights worldwide. Easy to state. Hard to achieve. But if we begin where we have achieved at a supranational level democracy, rule of law, freedom of expression, protection for women and minorities, as well as legal obligations to uphold social and trade union rights, then the locus of this achieved, working internationalism stares us in the face. It is called the European Union. The cry of Labour, new and old, is that together we can achieve more than if we act alone. The EU is where that core Labour value can become practice. Of course, we like the UN and the Commonwealth. Sensible Roosevelt-Clinton-Obama socialists like the United States. But the UN and the Commonwealth are not instruments of legal authority which bind their member states. The US Congress has no interest in British views. The EU is the only grouping of states where Britain, working with partners, can shape supranational, hence international policy as expressed in binding law. This does not make the EU a left project. It is hardly a rightist project otherwise the salvoes of hate directed against it from the Murdoch, Rothermere and Barclay Brothers newspaper empires would not take place. The BNP, UKIP, and much of the Tory Party dislike, even hate the EU. My enemy’s enemy is my friend is not always an absolute guide to politics. But anything that has Daniel Hannan and William Hague and Liam Fox denounce with such venom should be looked at positively. So rather than ask why the EU not sufficiently left we should ask what can we do to make EU progressive politics come to life. For the democratic left in Britain, the politics of Europe also make sense. In no other area do the Tories display such a reactionary, arrogant, sometimes openly xenophobic politics as on Europe. Here there is proof plenty in words from top, middle and lower pond Conservatives about how much they want to dismantle Britain’s relationship with Europe. This neo-isolationism and neo-appeasement of the most backward and reactionary political forces in East Europe should open a door for Labour to brand Cameron’s Conservatives as dangerous to Britain’s national interest. The Tory MEP Edward Macmillan Scott has denounced Cameron’s alliance with extreme, often racist and sometimes antisemitic nationalist from East Europe as opening the door to "respectable fascism." This is hard language from a mainsteam true-blue Conservative elected politician. It should be used to define the Cameron-Hague project on Europe as one of the nastiest, negative expression of contemporary British Toryism. But no Labour minister seems aware of Macmillan Scott’s critique of Cameron’s EU political alliances as "respectable fascism." There is a broader aspect as well. With their vulgar populist anti-Europeanism, the Conservatives have given up on more than two centuries of their claim to speak for the international interests of the nation. In the 18th century, Tory internationalism was imperialist. In the 19th century, imperialist internationalism was fused with free trade economics after the abolition of the corn laws. After 1945, the Conservatives shaped multilateral internationalism. Labour after 1945 forged an anti-communist but simultaneously anti-continental internationalism. It served the nation well in terms of shaping Nato and the UN, but left Britain adrift of being a European political power when Labour turned its back on the first expressions of Europeanism by refusing to join the common control of Europe’s iron, steel and coal industries. By contrast the Tories, after 1951, were enthusiastic supporters of the Council of Europe, the European Court of Human Rights, the UN, Nato, GATT (fore-runner of the WTO), and later supra-national treaties like the Test Ban Treaty, or the Law of the Sea. It was the Conservatives who took Britain into the European Community against a majority of Labour MPs, though not John Smith. It was the Tories who supported the appointment of Jacques Delors as European Commission President, and then agreed to the sharing of sovereignty inherent in the Single European Act and the Maastricht Treaty. Meannwhile Labour, in its 1983 manifesto, was calling for Britain to withdraw from Europe and for years after Labour MPs were infected by a crude Euroscepticism that alienated voters. Labour’s move under Tony Blair to being the party of Europe, compared to the weakness and vacillation and drift to anti-European posturing by senior ministers under John Major, appeared to seal the deal of Labour’s claim to represent Britain’s international interests by being the party of an efficient and effective policy in Europe. More than a decade later and the picture is blurred. Labour’s reticence over key aspects of European development from the Euro to social policy or to forging an effective European foreign policy independent of, even if aligned in value terms with the United States, has reduced Labour’s credentials inside the EU and globally. Labour since 1997 has got through a dozen Europe ministers and had two Foreign Secretaries whose DNA oozed Euroscepticism. The Treasury after 1997 rubbished the Euro as if the pound sterling would forever protect the UK economy. Ministers briefed or sent out media signals that they only wanted an EU that conformed to the verities of the Whitehall establishment or the prejudices of the worst poujadiste elements of British business. Blair’s and Brown’s broad pro-European credentials were not in doubt and both had been pro-European in the 1980s when some of their future Labour cabinet colleagues pandered to the Murdoch-Mail hostility to European cooperation. But neither Labour prime minister was willing to take a risk by supporting a broad, intellectual, and policy-focused pro-European politics. Neither faced down closet or overt Euro-cynical or Euro-nervous ministers. Neither sent out clear signals that to be pro-EU was the path to promotion for ministers. Blair made pro-EU speeches. But he did so in across the Channel, not in Britain. As a result Labour left the field clear to the lies and propaganda of anti-Europeans in the Conservative Party, the Tory press, as well as the BNP and UKIP. Can this now be challenged, let alone changed? The task is both serious and easy. Serious because on the whole, voters are not dupes about foreign relations. They have not supported protectionist or isolationist parties. They have supported parties of open trade and open frontiers – the defining nature of the EU. Voters can smell a "wong ‘un" – in the shape of an America that does not consult or a Russia that seeks to bully. Despite nationalist moans about too many foreigners, Britain knows that from the Hugenots of the 16th century to the German Jews of the 20th century, Britain has become richer from being open to the creativity of Europe. Today 1.5 million Brits live in Spain and France alone and thanks to the EU, Easyjet and Ryanair can land where they want because of EU open market rules. No British product or service from architecture to insurance can be refused access to a market of 500 million. Easy because the anti-EU propaganda of the Tories, UKIP, the BNP and the Mail is based on demonstrable untruths. The lies about Europe abound.
Lie No 1 is that an undemocratic bureaucracy in Brussels dictates to Britain. The truth is that elected ministers, accountable to their national parliaments decide common European rules, in conjunction with the democratically elected European Parliament.
Lie No 2 is that Europe dictates our laws. Yet the House of Commons Library (an independent research body) cannot find more than 10 per cent of all laws passed by the Commons which emanate from Europe. Yes, in areas where we share sovereignty, as in trade, we with EU partners agree common positions which then count for all 27 EU member states. But on tax, foreign policy, health, education, justice, transport and the 1001 big and small laws we pass, the nation state remains where law is made.
Lie No3 is that Europe dictates tax and spending policies. In truth, just a miserly one per cent of Europe GNI (gross national income) is transferred to EU agencies to be spent on commonly agreed policies. The other 99 per cent is earned, spent, taxed or allocated according to the national priorities. If anything, the argument should be made that with just 1 per cent of Europe’s income – less than the United States invested in the Marshall Plan afer 1947 – European nations, once poor and divided, have seen remarkable growth and investment in social justice, rule of law and human rights.
Labour has to lift its eyes above the Daily Mail's or Richard Desmond's isolationist Tory arguments and be more confident in making the case that Britain’s core vital interests are served by a full-hearted and, yes, enthusiastic engagement as a member of the European Union. Of course, we want reforms. National Parliaments like the House of Commons needs to be directly connected with EU decision-making. The European Parliament is not the last word in EU democracy. And as more and more racist and anti-semitic MEPs are elected from the BNP or xenophobic, isolationists from UKIP and the Conservative Party on the basis of fewer than 50 per cent of voters participating in European Parliament election, the representivity of the Strasbourg parliament comes into question. In some of current Labour debates, there has been a hint of a return to the old populist, anti-European reflexes of a Peter Shore or a Tony Benn in the 1980s or an earlier opportunistic Eurosceptic Labourism of Gaitskell in the 1960s or Healey and Callaghan between 1970 and 1974. This is tempting but dangerous. Like the "British jobs for British workers" slogan, a rush-to-the-mouth phrase which passes the test of a Newsnight interview or a conference speech but which then hangs round Labour’s neck like a tombstone, some of the current Labour language on Europe appears to validate the Tory or even UKIP/Daily Mail line on Europe. Hence the need for a new Labour confidence on Europe as a positive, win-win politics for British and progressive politics. David Miliband uses the metaphor that EU stands for "Environment Union" in the sense that if we want to contribute to global solutions for the challenge of global warming, then we have to be engaged in European Union politics with a professional enthusiasm that is rarely seen from Labour as it considers its European engagement. Being consistently, confidently and coherently pro-European is not easy. And to be so with wit, ease and charm is hard in a political discourse which does not like Europe. Labour having won power in 1997 with a pro-European élan has sadly squandered that confidence and enthusiasm. If we are to hold power and defeat a mean, sad, isolationist Tory politics that will do our country harm, it is high time Labour rediscovered its confidence and cheerfulness that a European Britain under Labour will be a bigger, better country than a little England Britain under the Conservatives and their isolationist allies.