What Labour’s leadership hopefuls ought to say about the EU

Screen Shot 2015-05-20 at 17.09.14So the Labour Party has another leadership election. Unlike in 2010, when I was still a Labour Party member and heavily involved in the process*, this time I have no vote (having quit Labour to join the German Grüne as I now live in Berlin). However that doesn’t mean I have no interest in the process, or who may win – not least because with an EU referendum on the horizon in the UK, my EU citizenship rights could be in jeopardy due to what happens in the UK.

What then, I wonder, should the leadership hopefuls, say about Labour’s position on the European Union? Here is a kind of annotated speech one of them could give.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Today the UK’s membership of the European Union has never been in more jeopardy. This worries me deeply. The UK leaving the European Union would have a profound and negative impact on every one of the 64 million people in the UK, and the businesses, not-for-profits, charities and institutions of the state on which we all rely. If I become Labour leader this is how I hope the party is going to approach the challenges to the UK’s relationship with the European Union in the short to medium term.

First of all we have to face the reality of the In-or-Out of the EU referendum promised by David Cameron. Whatever Labour has previously said about whether this referendum is a good idea or not does not matter now – the vote is going to happen whether we like it or not. The only question is over when this vote should happen. Cameron says it should be before the end of 2017, but I would urge him to bring forward the date – we need some certainty in Britain’s relationship with the EU, and that cannot happen before the referendum vote, so I favour a date in summer or autumn of 2016. I will make sure Labour – in both the House of Commons and the Lords – puts no barrier in the way of this timetable. We need a more profound debate about the role of referendums in British democracy, but that will have to wait until after the EU question is settled.

Then to the complicated issue of the supposed renegotiation of Britain’s relationship with the European Union, and the appeal of a “reformed EU” that we hear from both politicians and the press. In terms of what we want from the European Union, and how UK-EU relations are managed, we should start with the most comprehensive piece of work conducted on the issue – the previous government’s so-called Review of the Balance of Competences. That review concluded that relations between the UK and the EU were broadly right, and you are not going to hear from me that our relationship with the EU is in any way broken – it is not. While David Cameron marginalised himself in Brussels, I am going to seek to build bridges with fellow centre-left leaders across the EU as a matter of urgency – Blair’s relationship with Schröder was solid for a decade, and we need the same sort of alliances again in future.

Of course there are some concerns about how the European Union has had an impact on the UK, and we need to address those. The issue most commonly talked about is freedom of movement within the EU. Here I stand by the decision of Blair’s government to give the countries of central and eastern Europe access to the UK’s labour market from 2004 – the British were the good Europeans then, giving opportunities to those previously held back by the iron curtain. But back then only 3 countries – the UK together with Ireland and Sweden – opened their borders. Whenever the EU expands its borders in the future, there will be at least 25 countries whose borders will be open to the newcomers. To put it another way, the 2004 experience was a one-off. (more detail on this here)

The Prime Minister talks of restricting EU citizens’ access to benefits in the UK. That strikes me as callous and wrong in two ways. First, the tax paid by EU citizens in the UK far outweighs the benefits they claim. These people are motivated to come to the UK to work, not to come to claim benefits.

Second the problem is that the UK economy has a problem with having to pay too many in-work benefits in the first place. The solution is to make work pay for everyone, to reduce the need for benefits in the first place, not to be tough on those in need – regardless of where they come from. We need to look at rises to the minimum wage, how we can make the concept of the living wage workable, and determine how government can best support business to invest in workers – and by so doing drive down the need for in-wage benefits overall.

While we often think most about the 2.5 million EU citizens living in the UK, we should nevertheless not forget the 2.2 million Brits who live in the rest of the EU. We would be aghast if a British passport holder were given second rate services by the Spanish state in their hour of need, or if a British worker in Germany were to be given second rate support for her family, so we need to be fair to those who have come to the UK from the rest of the EU.

The Tories – and indeed their donors – keep on about “red tape” from Brussels, and somehow promise that Britain would be freed from this. What this “red tape” they speak of means in practice is far from clear, but one person’s burden on business is another’s sensible rule to offer workers cleaner air, maternity and paternity leave, fair competition law and consumer protection. As the banking crisis has shown us, business operating without rules leads to the very opposite of ethical behaviour, and too much market power in the hands of one firm – in Britain or across Europe – leads to non-competitive markets. So my priority is to find the right balance of regulation – to allow business to thrive, to allow new entrants a chance in the markets of the future, and to ensure our environment and our workers are adequately protected. Just look at export world champion Germany – their businesses succeed from within the EU, so why should that not be the case for the UK’s businesses as well?

There is much talk that the UK should seek to pry some powers back from Brussels, and if that does not work, then we should at least throw a spanner in the works to slow down the decision making process. The talk is of red cards for parliaments, and the reintroduction of vetos. Here too we need to be careful for what we wish for. To get a proper single market for digital services – a key need for the UK’s dynamic startup businesses – is going to need the UK to persevere over Germany’s opposition. Creating a green, liberalised and competitive energy market in Europe – another UK priority – is going to need to overcome opposition in France. If the UK wants a veto, everyone else will demand the same, and that will mean that key UK priorities are going to go out of the window.

So let’s have this referendum. Let’s have this discussion about Britain’s relationship with the European Union. But my position is clear – I am going to argue why Britain being in the European Union is central to my vision of the just and fair society I want to help build in the UK in the future. The EU is not the cause of our ills, and nor should this referendum be the back door to deregulation.

Thank you.

* – please note that my company hosts Liz Kendall‘s constituency website, but neither I nor my company has any role in her leadership bid, or the bid of any other candidate.

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