Is Labour finally getting to a coherent position on Europe?


9:05 am - July 24th 2012

by Paul Cotterill    


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Finally, finally, it looks as though the Labour leadership is edging towards a coherent position on the European Union.

Denis MacShane, presmuably with the go-ahead from Miliband, yesterday wrote a piece for Comment is Free, setting out how Miliband might use his visit to Hollande this week to set out a substantive Labour position quite distinct from Cameron’s silly rhetoric.

Labour should fashion its own R&R policy – reform of the EU institutions and rebalancing of European economics in favour of growth, jobs and a focus on salaries and wages, not rentier income. Right now all the focus is on the eurozone crisis and the need for less austerity and more growth.

But the EU institutions – a 27-strong commission that is far too big, a European parliament disconnected from national parliaments, and three EU presidents (commission, council and parliament) and a high representative – need substantial slimming down and refocusing to make them fit for purpose.

A centre-left R&R (reform and rebalancing) project for Europe should be developed to counter Cameron’s dangerous and isolationist repatriation and referendum politics. Winning Hollande’s engagement for a serious examination of reforming the EU, together with rebalancing Euronomics, would show Miliband setting the agenda on this important policy area.

I disagree with Denis’s view that Labour should entirely rule out a referendum, as to do so is (as with Cameron) to throw away an important bargaining chip.

It might well be counter-productive to leave the EU now, but if the plans now being drawn up by Herman van Rompuy for the further entrenchment of neoliberalism in the EU go through as I fear they might, exit may become a much more valid socialist response.

I also disagree with Denis on which bits of the EU instituitions need slimming down. Nevertheless, the general direction set out by Denis is good.

Of course, I’ve been talking up a joint Miliband-Hollande ‘project’ for months now, and I said much the same as Denis is now saying, but back in May:

Labour needs to be bold on Europe, and go much further, much sooner, than the first tentative steps it has taken in the right direction. It needs to see itself as a pro-active force on Europe, aggressively differentiating its own pro-activity from the reactionary little-Englander nonsenses of the Tories.

Labour (and the commentators who support it) need to stop worrying that an EU referendum will ‘define’ Labour’s first parliamentary term (assumed to be in some way for the worse), and instead be confident that it will be seen by voters as an integral part of strong Labour party project.

Labour needs to enunciate clearly that Europe is not currently working for working class people, because its institutions have been captured by the Right, and it needs to have a clear plan for their recapture by the Left. This is not an anti-Europe stance. This is an anti-rightwing Europe stance.

Labour needs to be clear on what it means by European democracy, and it needs to put in place the right people to make European democracy work.

It’s good to see Labour finally catching up, but it’d all be a lot easier if I was in charge of Labour policy on Europe in the first place…..

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About the author
Paul Cotterill is a regular contributor, and blogs more regularly at Though Cowards Flinch, an established leftwing blog and emergent think-tank. He currently has fingers in more pies than he has fingers, including disability caselaw, childcare social enterprise, and cricket.
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Reader comments


1. margin4error

To be honest – Labour’s position on Europe should be much as it was 100 years ago on Britain. It should be to democratise and modernise and to focus it on the whole population instead of on the elite.

In fact – since Labour’s the only party with any history of doing it – I might suggest they adopt that stance for Britain too.

2. Northern Worker

Paul, I think I agree more with your take than the CiF article by Denis MacShane. I’m not sure what kind of political principle is being urged on by Herman van Rompuy and his ilk in the unelected ‘elite’ of the EU. It looks like centralised command and control with 5-year plans and tractor output statistics. But then if you look more closely there seems to be an awful lot of back-door bailing out of banks.

However, there are two quite possibly terminal flaws in the EU. Firstly there is the democratic deficit. The ‘elite’ keep on pushing ahead with stuff no-one has voted for. I just can’t see 27 disparate (or is that ‘desparate’) nations with different cultures and languages ever being welded together as a United States of Europe. Long before that ever happens, even if it’s just the eurozone, the people will rebel and break out the piano wire.

Secondly there is the now admitted political project of the euro. A single currency, single exchange rate and no means of Keynesian money printing when required will never work no matter how much financial engineering Draghi and others cook up. Yes, they can keep it all going perhaps for another few years, but sooner or later it will implode and so will the EU.

I totally agree about youth unemployment. It’s a digusting waste. But in places like Spain where I’ve just been for a holiday, there is little chance these kids will get jobs. We landed at Murcia and our plane was the only one on the tarmac. Exactly 9 planes were landing and taking off that day compared to where we took off from in the UK where it was more like 35 every hour. Nothing is happening there. Restaurants we frequented last year have closed and there were tens of thousands of properties for sale within an hour’s drive of where we were staying. Hell, I could have bought a studio flat using both of my credit card limits together!

Worse, there were beggars on the streets, clearly unemployed adults hanging about, and even a pretty big demo outside a caja in a local town, which required a quick u-turn and a rapid drive in the opposite direction because the crowd obviously wanted to lynch some local politician whose name featured on all the banners.

I just can’t see how it could be any worse if the euro and the EU imploded. I would vote Labour again if they guaranteed a totally straight in/out referendum.

MacShane doesn’t even have the Whip. Like his mentor, Miliband is basically a sceptic. Moreover, he is heavily dependent on fierce Eurosceptics such as Balls and Cruddas. The party of Peter Shore lives again. Not before time.

4. Planeshift

“Exactly 9 planes were landing and taking off that day compared to where we took off from in the UK ”

I was in Croatia in June – Zadar airport had 4 flights that day. There are numerous regional airports in europe that are frankly unviable and should close.

5. Alex Macfie

The European Parliament is /supposed/ to be independent of national parliaments, just as the UK parliament is separate from local councils and regional assemblies. It is meant to be independent of nation states so that national government and party machines cannot dictate how MEPs vote. This allows the European Parliament to be an effective counter to national governments.

However, where national parliaments could and should have more influence over EU decision-making is in scrutinizing the positions taken by national governments in the Council. In some countries, notably the Netherlands and Denmark, the government /does/ have to answer to the national parliament over its position. Unfortunately, in the UK, this typically does not happen;positions are taken by civil servants, and the national Parliament is heavily whipped anyway.

So MacShane’s brilliant analysis and redprint for a reformed Europe is, well what exactly ? All I can see is a load of verbiage and hand waving about emphasis on growth and a slightly slimmed down bureaucracy – good luck with getting that past the apparatchiks, that’s your idea of a coherent position, seriously ? If all this was such a good idea why wasn’t he pushing for it when he actually had some say in the matter ?

Labour is the party that was busy imposing extra border controls when the rest of Europe was bringing down barriers to ordinary people who wanted to find work in another country, because Labour was so desperate to appease racists.

Labour doesn’t understand Europe, because it’s run by people who are too busy grabbing power in London, instead of creating opportunities for ordinary British people.

8. Northern Worker

Planeshift @4

Absolutely.

Murcia airport had dozens of employees and I did wonder how they got paid. On Spanish TV, as far as I could understand, Spain has 28 (?) airports where no flights or few flights have ever landed or taken off – all paid for with borrowed money.

Murcia,perhaps because it’s empty, is a pleasure to use compared Alicante.

It’s timely to recall this interview last December of Jacques Delors, who was president of the EU Commission at the time of the Maastricht Treaty which created European Economic and Monetary Union.

Euro doomed from start, says Jacques Delors – The euro project was flawed from the start and the current generation of European leaders has failed to address its fundamental problems, Jacques Delors, the architect of the single currency, declares today.
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/financialcrisis/8932647/Euro-doomed-from-start-says-Jacques-Delors.html

By the eligibilty criteria for joining the Euro set out in the Maastricht Treaty, only Luxembourg was eligible to join at the launch in January 2000 – see the FT text: The Birth of the Euro (Penguin Books).

The current standard course text is: The economics of monetary union (OUP, 9th ed. 2012). Professor De Grauwe, the author, is now at the LSE. I mention this as close followers of the news about the Euro will perhaps appreciate that many of the leading politicians in the EU simply don’t understand the necessary economic conditions for the stable functioning of monetary unions.

There seems to be a misguided belief that the political aspiration for closer European integration trumps the economics. It doesn’t. Monetary unions without fiscal unions have a poor track record for surviving. National economies participating in a monetary union lose national autonomy of monetary policy so national interest rates are no longer set to suit national conditions – hence the credit booms in Ireland and Spain and the associated property-price bubbles in those countries which led on to the instability of their respective banking systems. And, of course, in monetary unions, there is no longer the policy option of changing exchange rates to compensate for loss of competitiveness.

Try this prescient analysis in a paper in 1997 by Martin Feldstein: EMU and International Conflict

NW @2, thanks. On your two fundamental flaws:

1) Democratic deficit: Like Alex @5 (I think), the answer lies in the construction of a more robust European parliament, able to bring forward its own legislation (at the moment this is driven by the Commission) and with, at the very least, more weight in the co-decision making procedures (with the Council of member states). Where I disagree with Alex is that the EP should be free of party influence. Quite the reverse, it should be the main site for poltiical parties, through their European level amalgamations, to argue their case and put forward policy, via a revitalised European election process.

2) The euro project: I agree that i is fundamentally flawed from the start. At it’s most simple, any attempt ot promote convergence AND competition between states is clearly stupid – they pull in different directions. However, now is not the time to dismantle the euro – now is the time to argue a coherent case for a partial dismantling of the single market to allow for proper convergence (as allowed within the Lisbon Treaty in provisions no-one reads). Convergence is desirable in itself, but it requires proper redistribution to get there.

11. Alex Macfie

I didn’t say the EP should be non-partisan; rather that the pan-European party alignments in the EP means that MEPs are able to act independently of their *national* parties, especially when in government. And that this is a good thing IMO.

Alex @11: I stand corrected. I think, then, that we agree.

The challenge is to establish a genuine SDP alliance in the EP based on a proper PSE programme, into which national parties might feed but once established, MEPs are responsible for delivering, although none of this will work properly until the member states are socialist-enlightened enough to pass a change to the Lisbon Treaty which allows for an EP with proper powers. Certainly the PSE fundamental programme process over the last year or so has been little more than window dressing.

A highly recommended read in Wednesday’s FT: Martin Feldstein on: A rapid fall in the euro can save Spain from collapse:
http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/63848d68-d578-11e1-af40-00144feabdc0.html#axzz21ezYmFKj

Maybe but Spain’s and Ireland’s problems arose out of bailing out their respective bankig systems, not through budgetary indiscipline. Feldstein says a steep depreciation of the euro aginst the US Dollar – perhaps by as much as 30 pc – will have limited impact on the US economy as only 5 pc of US exports go to the Eurozone. But a steep depreciation of the Euro will certainly impact on Britain’s economy and the coalition government has been looking to an increasse in net exports to fill the gap in aggregate demand from public spending cuts.

Btw Wednesday’s FT also includes a delicious parable from John Kay: The parable of the ox – or why it is hard to castrate a bull market.

14. Charlieman

@5. Alex Macfie: “However, where national parliaments could and should have more influence over EU decision-making is in scrutinizing the positions taken by national governments in the Council.”

I’d be happier if there was less to scrutinise. I incline to the view that if policy was driven by MEPs rather than technocrats, there would be less policy in volume. It might be broader in concept, but less bossy and insensitive. More of it might even be practiced.

“In some countries, notably the Netherlands and Denmark, the government /does/ have to answer to the national parliament over its position. Unfortunately, in the UK, this typically does not happen;positions are taken by civil servants, and the national Parliament is heavily whipped anyway.”

I sympathise but believe that oversight of the EU is the role of MEPs. Oversight of the relationship between national government and the EU is the role of national MPs.

Alex suggests that parliamentary whipping and civil servant responsibility dumping are a problem. Those are UK government and political problems to be addressed by UK politicians AND citizens.

15. Charlieman

Apologies for intruding in a “Labour Party debate”, but I think that Lib Dems and Nationalists have as many, or more, incoherent policy positions than Labour.

Charlieman: “I incline to the view that if policy was driven by MEPs rather than technocrats, there would be less policy in volume. It might be broader in concept, but less bossy and insensitive. More of it might even be practiced.”

By a BBC reassessment of the course of the launch of the Euro a few months ago by Allan Little, the (arguably misguided) push forward came not, as might be expected, from EU Commission technocrats, who were cautious, but from politicans. In an article for the FT last year, John Major recalled that the clinching argument for allowing Greece to join the Eurozone came from a French politician: You cannot say No to the country of Plato.

My personal recollection is that the protracted and intemperate online debates c. 2000 were highly emotive about whether Britain should join. The expressed imperatives were political. Supposedly, there were no rational economic grounds for Britain to remain outside. In April this year, “Lord Heseltine has told the BBC that he thinks the UK will join the euro ‘if it survives’.”
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-17742675

The illuminating insight is that Walter Eltis, who was Heseltine’s economic adviser when he was DTI minister, presented a powerful case against Britain joining the Euro – see his book: Britain, Europe and the EMU (Palgrave 2000). Despite that, the DTI from Heseltine through to Patricia Hewitt was deeply committed to promoting Britain’s entry to the Eurozone. The Treasury introduced sanity with Gordon Brown’s announcement in June 2003 that, for the present, Britain would not be joining the Eurozone.

For those who followed the early economics literature on monetary union, there were warnings enough about the potential pitfalls. My own awareness came from reading the late Rudi Dornbusch on: Euro fantasies, in the Foreign Affairs periodical 1996 (steep subscription barrier unfortunately but the gist is represented in Dornbusch’s mainstream text on Macroeconomics (McGrawHill)).

As I suggested before, too few of the politicians understood or undertand the economics of monetary unions.

17. Alex Macfie

I sympathise but believe that oversight of the EU is the role of MEPs. Oversight of the relationship between national government and the EU is the role of national MPs.

But In my earlier comment I *was* referring to the oversight by MPs of the national government positions in the Council, which does not happen effectively in the UK because our Parliament is generally not properly consulted. But the Council is just as much part of the EU as the European Parliament: both the European Parliament and the European Council have input into EU policy, on a co-decisional (i.e. equal say) basis and separation of powers. So the EU democracy via the European Parliament is effective, but there is not necessarily effective democratic scrutiny over national government positions on EU policy.


Reactions: Twitter, blogs
  1. Liberal Conspiracy

    Is Labour finally getting to a coherent position on Europe? http://t.co/vQDvzqOz

  2. Clive Burgess

    Is Labour finally getting to a coherent position on Europe? http://t.co/vQDvzqOz

  3. Jason Brickley

    Is Labour finally getting to a coherent position on Europe? http://t.co/RGz0qoTh

  4. Alex Braithwaite

    Is Labour finally getting to a coherent position on Europe? | Liberal Conspiracy http://t.co/at4xLMsK via @libcon





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