by Kevin Meagher
Making a new case for an old ideal. In a nutshell that’s the job of all Labour leaders down the years. But Ed Miliband also thinks it’s the challenge for those who still see Europe as the solution to our national problems rather than the cause of them.
In his speech to the CBI yesterday he warned that fellow EU countries are “deeply concerned” because they sense Britain is “heading to the departure lounge”. A febrile mood on the Tory backbenches reflects the latent hostility among the British public with latest polls showing 56 per cent of Brits would vote to pull out if a referendum is held on the issue.
To his credit Ed stood firm against these siren calls saying he would not let Britain “sleepwalk toward exit from the European Union”. This is as strong an assertion of the importance of the EU as we have heard from any frontline political leader for some time. But even he only managed faint praise.
For he too recognises the EU’s focus is on the past not the future. It is still committed to propping up an insular, agriculturalist ancien regime rather than equipping Europe with the ability to withstand the challenges of the new century.
As he pointed out, farming subsidies still eat up 40 per cent of the EU budget while contributing just 1.5 per cent to economic output. The focus should instead be on “public goods” for the EU economy like infrastructure, innovation and energy.
In a prescient section of his speech, he conceded that for the post-war generation, including his Jewish parents, “Europe was a murderous continent”. For them European unity was “a noble ideal” with the countries of Europe “seeking to put peace and prosperity in place of war and destruction through economic and political co-operation” (or in former SDLP Leader John Hume’s phrase, the EU is “the longest running peace process in the world”).
But in Ed’s view, the passing of this generation means “the power of the founding ideal has faded with it.” The challenge, once again, is to sell Europe to the ever-sceptical British public. In making that case the CBI isn’t a bad place to start. Business leaders instinctively see the upsides of Europe, principally the single market and whatever their personal views, greet talk of departure and the uncertainty it brings with dread.
But the underlying problem is that the pro-European case has never been put with a tenth of the verve, chutzpah or energy of the naysayers. There have always been those willing to act as a bulwark against the Euro-haters on the right, but they seem less evident that ever these days. (It says everything that one of the most prominent of their number was Denis MacShane).
So great are the failings of the pro-Europeans in British politics that the very continuation of UK membership of the EU is still openly discussed, with talk of an in/out referendum simply the Trojan horse for leaving. Miliband used the speech to rule out support for such a plebiscite:
“Think about a business considering coming to Britain. What would they think if there was a referendum now? They would put investment in Britain on hold as they waited to see. There would be instability in our economy.”
To be sure, he is on flimsier ground when he claims such a vote does not “reflect the priorities of the British people”. Just 28 per cent of voters think the EU is a “good thing” these days, while 45 per cent think it is a “bad thing”.
Europe unquestionably remains a concern of the cognoscenti, but perhaps that is no bad thing for Ed Miliband. While it is true that there are no votes in Europe, this may nevertheless be an issue where he can improve his prime ministerial standing.
Yesterday’s poll which showed that just 25 per cent of voters named him as the best potential premier is unchanged since January 2011. Cameron still outstrips him in on this measure with 33 per cent.
But as CBI Director-General John Cridland put it: “Business welcomes the emphasis Ed Miliband put on Europe – the issue of the coming months. The CBI is a euro-pragmatist, Britain must be part of the single market in a reformed Europe.”
There is no obvious downside, therefore, to making common cause with Britain’s captains of industry on the need for a strong but constructive voice in Europe, especially if it enhances his standing and credibility with them in the process. Yes, the founding ideal may have faded, but in owning the centre-ground on Europe Ed Miliband’s odds on entering Downing street can only improve.
Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut