Miliband should give the speech Cameron couldn'tby Gisela Stuart / February 20, 2013 / Leave a comment
Labour’s thoughts on Europe—half-baked? © Reuters
A couple of weeks ago at a workshop at Birmingham University a young German got up and asked whether the British did not realise that we were “blessed by having Europe.” He said it in German, and while it had the touch of youthful idealism about it, somehow it sounded OK. It’s only when I translated it into English that it struck me how impossible it would be to stand up and say this in the UK and expect to be taken seriously. There are good historic reasons for the differences, but we need to accept and understand rather than deny them.
So what should Labour do when it comes to Europe? Our history is a chequered one—from Harold Wilson’s referendum on the terms of membership in 1975 to Tony Blair first standing for election as an MP in 1983, committed to withdrawing from the Common Market. Then came Jacques Delors who through Brussels gave us much of the social legislation we wanted and were denied by Margaret Thatcher’s government. Labour became a pro-European party because of the social policies the European Union pursued, not because we were wedded to the pursuit of a pan-European, supranational institution.
Our enthusiasm continued after the 1992 Maastricht Treaty which created the European Union, but only because we could see how it divided the Tory party. When Tony Blair promised a referendum on the European Constitution in 2004, it wasn’t because he believed it to be right but because Labour faced going into a European election where the Tories promised to “ask the people.” We couldn’t get away with replying “we won’t.”
What would I advise Ed Miliband to do now? First, stop thinking that we will ever come to love any institution of government. Democracy is government by explanation. So make sure you and your team talk about the substance rather than structures.
Second, don’t merely position yourself in relation to the Tories and David Cameron. If you are going to be prime minister in 2015, which I hope you will be, this is too important to be playing tactical games. This is about strategic decisions in the national interest.
Third, give the speech that Cameron wasn’t statesman enough to deliver. Acknowledge that, while we are not joining the euro, those countries that do have it will need much deeper economic, fiscal and political integration to make it work. That leaves us outside the inner core; our challenge is to shape new institutions which allow euro and non-euro countries to work together. Fourth, promise that an incoming Labour government will change the system for European elections. Closed party lists are fine for party apparatchiks, but do little for voters who want a more direct relationship with their MEPs.
Finally, acknowledge that at some stage Labour too will have to ask the people to give their consent to our relationship with the EU. It won’t make them love Europe, but at least the terms of engagement will be by popular approval.