The next Labour leader should take a forceful and positive line on the EUby Anthony Giddens / November 19, 2006 / Leave a comment
For the past year I’ve been taking part in a project on the future of the EU, concentrating on the “social model”—Europe’s systems of social protection and welfare. The experience has brought home to me how different Britain is from most other EU countries. If you are working on “Europe” in Britain, you are outside the mainstream of policymaking.
During his ten years of power, Blair has not managed to change this very much. He wasn’t prepared to risk pushing for Britain’s entry to the euro early on, when his standing was high. He has unhesitatingly leaned to the US, even when a right-wing administration took over; and the gamble he took in going along with that administration in the invasion of Iraq helped to split the EU.
Partly for these reasons, Blair has found it hard to work with EU leaders. Lionel Jospin was cold towards him. An initially good relationship with Gerhard Schröder soured. Romano Prodi and Blair were never close, while the less said of his relationship with Jacques Chirac the better. One can understand why Blair’s closest connections were with José María Aznar and Silvio Berlusconi—yet this was an odd, and in the end dysfunctional, choice of allies.
There are two main areas where Blair has made an impact on the European scene. The British played a significant role in creating the Lisbon agenda, initiated in 2000, which aims to boost EU growth and competitiveness. It has proved hard to implement, but has provided goals for the socio-economic development of the EU that have commanded general agreement. Blair also took the lead in arguing for improved EU military capability, especially in the creation of a force capable of rapid deployment in troublespots.
Blair signed up to the constitution. But it is clear that he felt relieved when French and Dutch voters said no. He called for a referendum in Britain not for democratic reasons, but to defuse the issue during the last general election. Other EU governments saw him as sacrificing principle for expediency.
Perhaps liberated by the demise of the constitution, Blair has given his best speeches about the EU late on. The best of all, delivered in the European parliament last June, was concerned with how the EU should react to the demise of the constitution. It is the only speech on the EU Blair has given that really struck a chord in other EU countries. Blair declared himself “a passionate pro-European,” but argued that more innovation and change were necessary. The reasons for the rejection of the constitution were not primarily to do with the document itself. Rather, the referendums in France and the Netherlands provided a vehicle for the expression of much wider discontents about employment, living standards and migration. Without social and economic reform, much of which has to be at the national level, there wasn’t much chance of further European integration.
Yet in this speech, as in others, Blair avoided spelling out what he thought should be the future of the EU and Britain’s place in it. So has every other top Labour figure. We all know what the Labour leadership thinks the EU should not be: a federal system with too much power taken away from member states. But is the EU in Blair’s eyes a political project at all—and if so, what kind? Will Britons forever be the “reluctant Europeans”?
Late last year, Gordon Brown did something Blair has not—he published a pamphlet on the EU, entitled “Global Europe.” The pamphlet drew upon a longer treasury-produced document on the problems of, and possibilities for, the EU. The EU, Brown says, has been inward rather than outward-looking. It must “reach out to the rest of the world,” upgrade skills, technology, education, and achieve greater flexibility in labour, capital and product markets. One of the odd things about the work is that it is written almost as if no one had thought of these points before. Most of the ideas suggested by Brown are actually in the Lisbon agenda. In his 2005 European parliament speech, Blair put things more succinctly. What we must do, he said, is simple: implement the Lisbon agenda.
Zaki Laidi, a prominent French commentator, wrote that, “according to Gordon Brown, there is no point in the existence of the EU.” Brown’s economic formulas, he pointed out, could be applied by nations regardless of whether the EU existed or not.
Brown is widely thought to be more sceptical about the EU than Blair. If and when he becomes leader, should those of us who believe that the EU is essential to Britain’s future abandon all hope? I don’t think so. There are good reasons for the next Labour leader, whoever it is, to take a forceful line on the EU. And the obstacles to such an endeavour have dwindled. Being outside the euro is not the barrier to a British voice in Europe it once was. Europe’s elites have had to accept that the euro is only a partial success. It has not helped to generate the return to growth that its proponents hoped for.
Even more important, given the range of the EU’s problems, it isn’t possible to be naively pro-European any longer. A “critical pro-Europeanism” can resonate more closely with British Euroscepticism, at least of the more reasoned kind. Moreover, the old guard of European leaders—Chirac and the rest—have either departed or lost influence. Almost by default, Angela Merkel is emerging as the dominant figure.
What the EU needs is not so much a constitution as a rationale, and British intellectuals and politicians should play a big part in shaping it. Eurobarometer surveys show that in most EU countries, a majority regards the union favourably (although less so than in the past). But when they are asked what the EU is for, they scratch their heads. This is not surprising. The nature of the EU changed fundamentally after 1989, and everyone is trying to come to terms with the consequences. The EU was in large part a child of the second world war and the cold war. It got its identity from its nature as a buffer zone between the US on the one side and the Soviet empire on the other.
We now need a new account of the benefits the EU can bring to Britain, but one that connects with the changed agenda emerging in domestic politics. I would base this account on what I call a “sovereignty plus” notion. If sovereignty means real control over our own affairs—as opposed to token legal sovereignty—we gain more by our commitment to the EU than we would outside it. This argument applies to the single market. Contrary to what Brown says, economic globalisation does not, and will not, produce anything like a wholly integrated world marketplace. One of the main attractions of the EU is simply that it is a massive market close at hand. The idea of the Tory right that Britain could withdraw from the EU and still gain all the economic advantages that membership confers is a nonsense. But the argument applies with just as much force to the issues coming into the centre of political life—migration, crime, climate change. It is quite obvious that such questions cannot be dealt with by individual nations acting on their own. They are among the main reasons to press for greater European integration.
Labour’s success in the next election may depend in some part upon splitting the Conservatives. Besides taxation, a key area where it will be very difficult for the Tories to establish a coherent stance will be the EU. The “new Tories” of David Cameron are more vulnerable on Europe than Labour is. On the one hand, Cameron is pandering to traditional Tory hostility to the EU. On the other, he is trying to take a lead on the climate change and energy security agenda. How are these two positions compatible? The Tories should be pushed to say in detail what Euroscepticism, as they practice or propose it, actually means.
If it is to deliver sovereignty plus, the EU has to be a political project, not just an economic one. But what kind of political project? There is a major opportunity for Britain here. Federalism is dead. There is no chance that the EU will become a federal superstate. However, it is, and has to be, more than a sort of regional UN, a loose collection of formally independent states. The nature of the EU will be defined by certain basic decisions taken by member states over the next few years, including the ticklish question of its limits. Where are the EU’s boundaries to be? My own answer would be that Turkey and the Balkan states should have the opportunity to join, as the EU has in principle already agreed, if they make the necessary changes (quite a big “if” as things stand), but after that—full stop. No further full members, whatever special privileges might be offered to countries such as Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova or the states of north Africa.
The constitution should be abandoned for the immediate future, but some of its prescriptions will have to be enacted if the EU is going to deliver on sovereignty plus. There should be a single EU foreign minister instead of a job divided in two, as is the case at the moment. The proposal in the constitution to have an elected president of the European council, serving for a term of at least two years, should be endorsed. The current six-month rotating presidency is a recipe for lack of continuity in decision-making and the rule of inertia. Difficult though the issue is in the context of British politics, there has to be more majority voting on the council, and more effective rules for reaching decisions than those inherited from the Nice agreements of a few years ago.
Transatlantic relations have to be reconsidered. Blair built much of his foreign relations strategy upon the idea that Britain could be a bridge between the US and Europe. It wasn’t the right approach. It implies again that Britain isn’t really part of Europe. While the special relationship isn’t wholly a myth, it isn’t clear that any single member state can or should be the main channel of EU-US relations. Foreign policy is one area where, in spite of problems, the EU has been quietly effective—in helping to stabilise Macedonia, for instance, or persuading Russia to ratify Kyoto—and could be more so in the future.
Britain should continue to push for economic reform and liberalisation in the EU, as Brown says. However, there are two provisos. First, we have to show that social and economic reform is the condition of preserving effective welfare. Second, we should stop acting as if Britain has nothing to learn from the rest of Europe. The Scandinavian states have outperformed Britain in growth rates over the past ten years; they also have far less inequality. We can learn a lot from their successes—which are by no means all the result of higher levels of taxation—and from their shortcomings.
The next Labour leader will need allies, and these should transcend the divisions that the Iraq adventure produced. Merkel is a potential ally for Britain, although she is hostile towards Turkey’s case for eventual EU membership. Prodi and José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero could also be friendly figures, as could Ferenc Gyurcsány in Hungary, supposing he surmounts his current difficulties. The battle to modernise the EU budget and reduce the amount spent on the common agricultural policy will be a crucial feature of the budget review due in 2008.
Assuming the next Labour leader is, after all, Gordon Brown, he will have to do a lot more work on the issues mentioned above. I hope I have shown some of the reasons why he should.