Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 28 October 2011

On the face of it, now does not seem a particularly appropriate time for Labour to reassert its pro-European credentials.

The euro zone is in the throes of a giant crisis that it is only beginning to get under control and could yet end in disaster, and the prospects of Britain joining it any time soon are close to non-existent.

Opinion polls show that a majority of Britons would definitely or probably vote to leave the European Union given the chance, and the Tory party is spectacularly split over whether there should be a referendum on Britain’s relationship with the EU. This week, 81 Tory MPs defied the whips to vote for one – the biggest backbench rebellion in any party ever over Europe, dwarving even the revolt by Labour pro-Europeans in favour of British membership of what we then called the Common Market in 1972.

It must be a temptation for Ed Miliband and Ed Balls simply to enjoy David Cameron’s discomfort while tutting at the irresponsibility of a holding a referendum at such a critical time for Europe and emphasising that it was Labour (specifically, their onetime boss Gordon Brown) that decided not to join the euro in the late 1990s.

That is a better line to take than jumping on the Tory Eurosceptic bandwagon to demand a referendum now, as 19 Labour MPs did this week – but it is not a coherent long-term Labour policy on Europe. And, like it or not, the party is going to need one before the next general election.

Of course, there are some very good reasons not to get into too many specifics just yet. The next general election is not due until 2015 – though it might come sooner if Cameron suffers many more rebellions on the scale of this week’s – and no one knows what will happen between now and then.

The eurozone might have as many participating countries as it has today; it might have more or fewer. It might be deep in recession; it might be in the bloom of economic health. The EU might have developed a credible redistributive fiscal regime, or it might not. There might be treaty changes in the offing to amend the EU’s economic policy institutions, or proposals for new decision-making procedures in the Council of Ministers, or plans for extra powers for the European Parliament. And there might be different governments in power – a particularly important possibility in the cases of France and Germany, which face general elections next year and in 2013 respectively.

It is also undoubtedly true that nothing Labour says in opposition is going to make the slightest bit of difference to how Europe deals with the eurozone crisis in terms either of immediate fire-fighting or institutional reform.

Nevertheless, it would be a mistake for Labour simply to watch and wait to see what happens in Europe. If it wins in 2015 – and it has to act on the assumption that it will – it is going to have to deal with the EU. And if it has ruled out British withdrawal, which it has for 25 years, it needs to work out how it will engage most constructively.

Here, it is essential that the party learns from the mistakes of the Blair and Brown governments between 1997 and 2010, which were marked firstly by zealous British enthusiasm for free markets and deregulation and secondly by foot-dragging on reforms to make the EU more accountable to its citizens.

It was Labour Britain that was the main force behind the EU’s drive for deregulation and privatisation throughout the first decade of this century. And it was Labour Britain, acting in concert with France, that ensured that the changes to the EU’s institutional arrangements that were eventually brought about by the 2007 Lisbon treaty (after the farce of the EU constitution being rejected by French and Dutch voters in 2005) did so little to enhance the powers of the EU’s only democratically elected body, the European Parliament.

Even if Labour leaves the details for later, it needs to make it clear that it has left all that behind and now stands squarely for stronger European workers’ rights, comprehensive Europe-wide financial and environmental regulation and a radical democratisation of the EU’s institutions, in particular giving the European Parliament the power to initiate legislation on certain areas of policy.

What it should not do, under any circumstances, is flirt with Euroscepticism. It might be the flavour of the moment in the press and among the Tories, but it is not a viable option for a modern internationalist social democratic party. What Europe needs to overcome its current difficulties is more integration, more powers of economic management and more democracy – and Labour should not be afraid to say so.

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