UK Labour Party - Sacrificing Europe

The UK's political debate on Europe is toxic. The main opposition party, Ed Miliband's centre-left Labour Party is doing little to stop the rot. This issue's Flop European goes to a political party that, at an acute time for European politics in the UK, has traded in its European credentials for short term political point scoring.

Illustration: Laura Hempel
Labour's position on Europe is now unclear

The Labour Party was once considered the main pro-European party of Britain. Before the Lisbon Treaty was signed, Tony Blair, then Prime Minister, was active in pursuing greater integration and had brought the country to the brink of joining the Euro. David Miliband, our very own Issue #1's Top European, was an active and engaged Foreign Secretary and almost became a subsequent leader of the party, until his brother unexpectedly beat him to the role. Two years on from that leadership election, Ed Miliband's Labour Party are only now beginning to establish a clear platform on which to challenge for power. Whilst they are riding high in the polls, a sign of public fatigue for a mid-term Parliament, they have done little to establish a convincing political narrative, not least of all on Europe.

The position of an opposition party is a strange one. Free from the responsibilities of power, it can challenge the Government to account for its decisions and present an alternative image to the public on how it would rule, with little actual risk. In this way the Labour Party defines the shape of the Europe debate in the UK as much as the Government sets the agenda.

Early indications suggest that they are slowly repositioning themselves away from a strong rebuttal to the hard line, 'out out out!' Euroscepticism of some elements of the Conservative Party and increasingly vocal UK Independence Party, the referendum debate over the UK in Europe would be worse off, not because of their political position, but their failure to force a wide ranging and balanced debate and it is this failure that will be to the detriment of the party, the British public and Europe.

The EU Budget 

The domestic debate over the recent EU Budget negotiations demonstrates the frivolity with which the Labour Party are using Europe for political gain. Prime Minister David Cameron, under pressure from members of his own Conservative party and that of the UK Independence Party, announced he would pursue a real-terms freeze in the budget. This €200 billion reduction was already deeper than Angela Merkel's €130 billion reduction proposal. Rather than debating this proposal on its merits, the Labour Party goaded the Prime Minister into calling for a real terms cut in the EU Budget and inflicted a House of Commons vote loss by voting with the Eurosceptics.

They are quietly preparing for a fight to have claim over a narrow interpretation of the 'national interest'.

None of the UK's European partners, except Sweden, felt that an outright reduction of the Budget was an acceptable compromise. The Prime Minister was left in the untenable position of radically compromising with the European consensus and being characterised as a failure at home, or falling short of the much tougher Labour line. In effect, the Labour Party prepared the Prime Minister for failure, and began the process of setting themselves up as a 'tough' party on EU spending. A shrewd domestic political move, but one that held both the UK position and the EU budget to ransom. Long term, it will be a line that may be hard to backtrack from come the impending referendum.

'One Nation' economics

Illustration: Katherine Maire
Labour's rose shedding its European stars

On domestic policy, Labour has also failed to engage with the necessities of the broader European context. At a time of global financial crisis and system level instability across the European common market, Labour have picked up the rhetoric of 'one nation' economics in order to sell their economic theory of 'predistribution'. Initiated as an attack on the Government for failing to support the poorer groups in the UK, a natural corollary of this argument is the call for a narrow, partisan 'Defending the UK in Europe' line. As this excellent Global Policy blog sets out, a 'one nation' economic agenda fails to highlight that many of the problems the UK is faced with are global in nature and need to be addressed as such and “encouraging a nationalist ideology only serves to limit the domestic appetite for solutions to these global issues.”

At a time when the Government is preparing to extricate the UK from wider European cooperation, the opposition party is not providing the necessary sense check to a barely uncontested 'truth': that Britain is better 'out' than 'in'. Instead, they are quietly preparing to outflank the Government for a fight to have claim over a narrow interpretation of the 'national interest'.

A shifting debate

This 'prize' is not to suggest that the Labour Party are not still, on the whole, in favour of the UK as a full member of the European Union. But as we go into the crucial year of 2013, our former Top European David Miliband freely admits that Labour is repositioning on Europe. This movement is enabling the Brexit debate to further gravitate to the exit door; a debate that is already characterised by naïveté, half truths and a wanton disregard for any of the benefits of full membership. Whilst UKIP and the harder wing of the Conservatives are actively vocal on leaving the EU, those who are more in favour have yet to ensure that the benefits and true impact of EU legislation are heard within the UK. This argument is too important to be unheard and comes with too great an impact to be left to the only man who has made a solid pro-European argument so far: the former Labour Prime Minister, forever tainted with Iraq, Tony Blair.

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