How might a Labour “Pro-European scepticism” change politics?

Very interesting article from former Robin Cook adviser David Clark today, pushing for Labour to take a ‘fight to save Europe from itself“approach.

As David says, at the moment the pro-European case is held:

” ..hostage to every foolish decision taken in the EU’s name and drive(s) everyone with a legitimate doubt about some aspect of EU policy into the camp of the antis. At a time when the European system is visibly malfunctioning to the obvious distress of so many, the consequences have been politically disastrous. Policy failure has become an existential threat to the eurozone and to Britain’s membership of the EU”


“The truth is that Europe has been abysmally led for several years now. The extent of that leadership deficit became painfully apparent when the global financial crash revealed deep design flaws in the EU’s approach to monetary union. Forever shambling towards yesterday’s solution tomorrow, EU leaders have lacked the imagination and willpower to solve the continent’s problems and chart a path to recovery.”


“Economic and monetary union was launched without an economic component that might have prevented the kind of divergence that lies at the root of the eurozone’s difficulties. Little thought was given to how the free movement provisions designed for six countries at similar levels of economic development would work after the EU incorporated the impoverished countries of Central and Eastern Europe. The idea of a social Europe, envisaged by Jacques Delors as a balance to the single market, has been the casualty of a headlong rush towards liberalisation for its own sake.”

Reading this, It struck me that the last sentence aside, David Cameron could and would agree with all of this.

There are issues- the social europe, green agenda, possibly growth policy (what there is of it in Europe) where a Labour pro-Euro reformist strategy would jibe against the Tories, but on others, and especially on what I’d regard as the central issues of the moment -cost, structural reform, effectiveness-, there are some noticeable similarities.

So, an interesting question. If this is where Labour goes, why wouldn’t the Tories take Labour at their word on these issues?

If Labour calls for a budget cut, Cameron could veto the budget and launch a campaign for a lower budget through QMV, He could even ask Mr Miliband to “visit his good friend Mr Hollande” to make the case for budget cuts and CAP reform. If he veto’s and the budget rolls over, he can threaten to play merry hell until a deal is done. COuld Labour oppose him, after calling for him to go further even than this/

If Labour wants to position itself against intra-EU immigration, Cameron could be the voice for stricter transitional arrangements.

If Labour demands for better, tighter economic and foreign policy decision-making. Cameron could take that agenda too. He might not want to go for an Elected EU President,as David Clark does, but he could certainly argue for a shift in power from the Commission to the Council of Ministers.

If Labour were to embrace a practical, pro-european, hard-headed realism that aggressively sets out a critique of the current EU, doesn’t that effectively legitimise Cameron’s own claim that his Euro-scepticism is not dangerously “anti-European” and risky to our future in the EU, but in fact the only sensible response to the sclerotic, unreformed, undemocratic Europe we see today?

Of course, the practical danger with such and approach is that it’s unlikely to work, and by entering into a debate he’s very unlikely to win, Cameron would no longer be insouicantly strolling to the European Exit, but purposefully striding towards it.

However, if Labour are egging him on at least on the need for reform, democratisation and budget cuts, the domestic political risk of all this is reduced as Cameron could position his demands as the settled will of the British polity.

He might even find himself in rather Disraelian fashion, dishing the whigs. He could launch an “EU reform Bill” that included many of the items David discusses, accepting every radical Labour reform amendment, knowing full well these would make life unbearable for other Heads of government.  ‘This is what you wanted” he could argue. “why are you afraid of pushing for it?“.

The correct Labour response, I suspect, would be to focus on the huge risks entailed in a confrontational “gung ho for reform” strategy.

Yet then the onus on Labour would be to demonstrate how we would “consensually” deliver our aims, without either giving up “more” than Cameron would, or creating a similar risk of separation. I may be wrong, but, aside from Financial Services, it seems there is not much the European centre-left is asking of Britain at the moment that we’d willingly give.

All this requires David Cameron to be almost heroically uninterested1 in good governance, to have few firm beliefs and to primarily interested in short term political advantage and preservation of office. Sadly, I don’t find that incredible.

There are huge numbers of ways this could play out, but if Labour’s pro-Europeanism is about to become much more sceptical and hard-headed, that creates interesting dynamic, on both left and right, in Westminster and in Brussels.

  1. changed from disinterested on kind advice of Editorial director (involuntary, unpaid) of this blog, Mr J Rentoul []

One Response to “How might a Labour “Pro-European scepticism” change politics?”

  1. Edward Carlsson Browne

    I’ve only just seen this, so the conversation may have moved on, but it strikes me that you aren’t really arguing that this is a bad rhetorical pose to strike because Cameron could run with it, you’re arguing that this is not a policy direction Labour should take.

    That’s not an invalid position to take, for all that I’d probably have agreed with it five years ago. But it requires some very different questions.

    If we aren’t going with this rhetoric, how are we going to sell the EU? The fact that it is a benefit to the UK economy hasn’t made support for our continued membership go up, and complaining about the multiple absurdities contained within it and a lack of accountability have been fruitful approaches for Eurosceptics.

    We can’t justify the CAP. We can’t justify much of the administration budget (and the fact it’s a relatively small part of the budget is not an excuse). We can’t as a party happily line up behind all the neoliberal nostrums of the Commission (most, perhaps, but not all unless we want to go back to the bad old days of defining ourselves by pissing off our activist base). We can’t say that free movement from accession countries has been popular with our voters.

    We cannot sell a position of uncritical support for Europe to the electorate, and not talking about it and hoping it’ll go away hasn’t worked so far. We have to pick some issues to pick a fight on, and these are our best bets. If the European centre-left isn’t willing to negotiate on them, it’s not us who’ll be leading the way to an inevitable exit. It’s the European centre-left.

    We can’t avoid difficult arguments because the European centre-left won’t like them. If we do, we may as well just call the damn referendum now.


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