by Peter Watt
I am a pro-European. I believe that the EU is basically a force for good in the world and that the single market is good for Britain. I believe that there are some issues that can clearly only be dealt with internationally like climate change, human trafficking, food safety or terrorism. I believe that British citizens are better protected by much of the social legislation emanating from Brussels.
But I also believe that the EU desperately needs reform in areas like its agricultural and fisheries policy and I do think that there has probably been a bit too much undermining of our national sovereignty. On the last point by the way, I am quite prepared to accept that this may well be emotional rather than rational!
I also think that the advent of the euro and the continued expansion of membership, means that there already is a two or three or even a four speed Europe. I don’t believe that Britain should or will ever join the euro but I hope against hope that the euro survives. And I suspect that the steps taken to secure the future of the euro will continue to radical force changes in the relationships between members of the EU and between those inside and outside of the eurozone.
And I strongly believe that most people don’t give a flying fig about any of this. The central issue of the day is clearly the economy and jobs. We all know that David Cameron was forced to make his speech yesterday by the euro-obsessives in his party; it is a sign of his relative weakness. But voters may not care all that much about the EU but increasingly many voters are disillusioned with political parties that they think are out of touch, unresponsive to their needs and self-interested. They feel this about the town hall as much as MPs and their expenses. And they certainly feel it about Europe, the EU/EEC/common market/the French/the Germans/the Greeks. So David Cameron may well have been forced into this position of an in/out referendum by 2017 against his wishes, but in doing so he potentially taps into a rich vein of anti-politics sentiment.
Now it is certainly too early to say whether or not Ed Miliband and Labour have made a catastrophic mistake in their handling of this issue. But they sure as hell have made a mistake, and I honestly do not understand how or why they’ve made it. Quite frankly Ed Miliband could pretty much have made that speech yesterday. He would have talked up the social benefits of membership a bit more but there wasn’t much else he would’ve probably changed. He would want to reform the CAP and CFP and wouldn’t join the euro; he wouldn’t argue for ever closer union and the giving up of more national powers. He would also like to strengthen the working of the single market and would accept that the EU institutions could do with a bit of streamlining. He would accept that in reality there will inevitably be further changes in relationships between members as the euro is or isn’t finally secured.
And, as both he and Douglas Alexander have made clear before and after Cameron’s speech, Labour would support a referendum in the event of any treaty change within the EU that alters British powers and competencies. In fact such a referendum is automatic following the coalition’s European Union act that enacted a “referendum lock” and Labour now apparently supports this. It might not technically be an in/out referendum, but as in reality for all intents and purposes it would be, then he could have said that he supported one without much difficulty. And he would certainly also argue for a “yes” vote in any referendum which is, whatever caveats he claims, also David Cameron’s position.
But he knew that Cameron was going to make the referendum pledge, it’s not as if it was a secret! And he had the chance to make the pledge first, and he failed to do so even though his position is pretty much to have one. Worse, forced into a corner at PMQ’s he appeared to rule out a referendum. Douglas Alexander tried to backtrack later with a half-hearted “what he meant was now is not the time to make such a pledge.” But the damage was and is done.
David Cameron says that he will give the people a say, Ed Miliband will not. It almost certainly isn’t fair, and certainly isn’t an accurate description of Labour’s position, but whenever Ed tries to clarify the Tories will quote his answer at PMQ’s. They’ll say that whatever he says, that one moment under pressure at the despatch box showed what Ed really thinks – that the people should not have a say because it is too important an issue to trust them with. And when you think that many voters already suspect that politicians hold them pretty much in disdain, this isn’t a great place to be.
Like it or not David Cameron’s speech was a big moment in this Parliament. Not because the EU is a central issue for voters but because the relationship between politicians and voters is. As Ed Miliband has said (and as did Atul Hatwal yesterday on Labour Uncut), this speech is not the end of Cameron’s euro problems it is only the beginning. But Cameron was forced into this position; Ed had a choice.
Peter Watt was general secretary of the Labour party