Category Archives: Brussels Labour

Guest blog from Julian Priestley: ‘A referendum on Europe? A bad good idea’

We are told that ‘senior’ Labour figures are thinking about proposing an ‘in or out’ referendum on Europe after the next election with a view to the pro-side winning and settling the argument once and for all. Our Europe spokesman is said to be weighing it up, although he remains as yet ‘unconvinced’. And, it must have seemed a good idea at the time, probably late at night and after a few beers.

It would- so its advocates believe- split the coalition parties, embarrass the Tories, and shield Labour from eurosceptic attack from the right wing press. Victory for the pro-Europeans would mean that we could finally lay the whole issue to rest.

Proposing a referendum on leaving the EU in order to campaign for staying in is just the kind of cockeyed triangulation that we have come to know so well over the past fifteen years and which discredits politics and usually embarrasses its proponents.

First, British membership is not a live issue in UK politics at the moment. The coalition has settled down to a kind of low-level euroscepticism which just adds to our marginalisation but has not yet done further irreparable harm. If Labour has a European policy it is being rather quiet about it. To propose a referendum on leaving the EU would reopen a debate which should be allowed to wither away in the columns of the Daily Express and the Murdoch media. Why give the whole thing legs?

It would also perplex the British people who might think that Labour would do better to marshal its forces on issues of more immediate concern- saving jobs, fighting health service cuts and rampant inequality. And if the British people did not get it, imagine the consternation of our socialist allies in the other member states.

Second, the Tories would not be the only ones split on the issue for there are still some in our own party nostalgic for a return to the heyday of Common Market Safeguards and Get Britain Out. On the other hand the extreme right would have a field day.

Third, it would settle nothing. A resounding ‘yes’ vote in the 1975 referendum led to Labour espousing unconditional withdrawal (and this time without a referendum) within eight years. Would the Tory right and the Europhobic press really accept the result?

Fourth, with the Tories in opposition post-2015, and with the anti-Labour press rampant would we really want a Labour government to have to squander its energy and authority on trying to win a referendum simply to maintain the status quo? And were the Labour government actually to lose the referendum why lumber the whole of that first term with the absolute mess that withdrawal from the EU would create?

For the defeat of the anti-Europeans in a referendum is not a foregone conclusion. The public might well take an anarchic delight in giving the result which would most embarrass the authors of this wheeze who seem to have chosen the nadir of Europe’s public support to start a process which could take us backward towards the main exit.

Fifth, progressives should be very wary about referendums. They are rarely instruments for change, and almost never on the actual question posed. If we had proceeded by referendum most of the social advance of the last hundred years would have been stopped in its tracks.

Sixth, and perhaps most importantly, the whole gambit is a massive distraction from working out a coherent European policy the aim of which should not be to cling on in Europe but to take us to the heart of the whole enterprise.

By the 2015 election it is at least possible that there will be socialist governments in France and in Germany- and a much better result for European socialists in the 2014 European Parliament elections. Our European priority now should surely be to work out a credible socialist platform for government with growth, the greening of Europe’s economy, innovation and research at its centre, and a new Neighbourhood policy which should be the signal that Europe aligns itself with democratic change, not with propping up geriatric, nepotistic, corrupt and authoritarian regimes.

Now that would be a positive European agenda and much preferable to the squalid manoeuvre of a backward-looking referendum which would almost certainly backfire. The leadership should get a grip on this apology for an idea and kill it stone-dead.

Julian Priestley
Waterloo, 23 February 2011

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Join us on Thursday for the sister parties reception!

Here’s a look at some of our upcoming events:

New Year reception of Democrats and Socialist sister parties in Brussels

Thursday 10 Feburary 2011 | Residence Palace restaurant, Rue de la Loi, 1000 Brussels (just behind the Justus Lipsius building) | 18:30 – 21:00

Please click here for more details

Brussels Labour AGM + Commissioner Štefan Füle, European Commissioner for Enlargement and Neighbourhood Policy

Wednesday 23 March 2011 | Further details to follow

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Linda McAvan MEP to address next branch meeting

Here’s a look at some of our upcoming events:

Linda McAvan MEP – post-Cancun, and the mood of the Labour Party

Wednesday 26 January 2011 | Carpe Diem, Avenue de Tervuren 13, 1040 Etterbeek (near Merode Metro station), upstairs room | Venue open from 19:30, meeting at 20:00

Linda McAvan will speak at the first Brussels Labour branch meeting of 2011 on Wednesday 26 January. She will talk about the Cancun climate change negotiations and the mood in the Party now that we are in opposition in the UK.

Please note that we are meeting at a new venue next week!

Sister Parties reception

Thursday 10 February 2011 | Further details to follow

Brussels Labour AGM + Commissioner Štefan Füle, European Commissioner for Enlargement and Neighbourhood Policy

Wednesday 23 March 2011 | Further details to follow

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‘It’s the people, stupid!’ – Martin Westlake at the John Fitzmaurice memorial lecture

On Monday 29 November, Martin Westlake, Secretary-General of the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC), delivered the seventh annual John Fitzmaurice memorial lecture, with the title ‘It’s the people, stupid!’.

A full summary of the event will appear shortly in the Germinal section of the Brussels Labour website and in the next print edition of Germinal.

In the meantime, you can read the text of the speech in the John Fitzmaurice memorial lecture section of the website, where you can find out more about the lecture.

Brussels Labour would like to thank Martin for agreeing to deliver the lecture, and also for his very generous contribution of a banner for use at future lectures (see photos below).

A selection of photos from the event is below – for more photos, visit our Flickr page.

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European political parties – the missing link

Julian Priestley, former General Secretary of the European Parliament and a good friend of Brussels Labour, has recently published a paper for the Notre Europe foundation (set up by Jacques Delors) which he has agreed to let us put online (click here to read the paper).

Titled ‘European political parties: the missing link’, its central thesis is that Europe’s political parties are failing to make the links between the institutions and the citizen. As a result they bear some of the responsibility for the anti-EU sentiments present in many member states, and these sentiments in turn hinder the development of the parties. The importance of their role in recent EU-level decisions on key posts served only to highlight the untransparent way in which they reached their positions, resulting, as Julian puts it, “in a failure to add any discernible democratic value to the process”. Continue reading European political parties – the missing link

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Brussels Labour quiz: thanks for your support

Intense concentration as Michael Cashman reads the questions
Intense concentration as Michael Cashman reads the questions
Over €300 raised for charity
Over €300 raised for charity

The Brussels Labour quiz, held on Wednesday 10 November, was a great success – 18 teams of four packed into The Staff to hear some fiendish questions read by Michael Cashman MEP.

The raffle raised €313 for the victims of the floods in Pakistan.

A longer write-up of the will follow on in the Germinal section, and in the next print edition of Germinal, due to be published in the new year.

Thanks again for your support!

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Brussels Labour at Party Conference

You might have thought the first Party conference after we lost power and did so badly in the general election would be a subdued affair tinged with introspection. But the atmosphere at this year’s conference was intense and energetic. Of course it had its moments of drama (especially the leadership election results on the day before conference) but none of these dented the clear sense that the Party is determined to move forward in a confident and united manner.

The media, ever keen to find a negative angle, seemed to be reporting on a different event from the one we attended. Yet the election of the new leader and his messages have accelerated the pace at which people are joining or rejoining Labour.

Much was made about the new generation, but Ed Miliband was at pains to stress that it’s not about age but about attitude. He managed the tricky manoeuvre of breaking with the past while clearly retaining Labour values and acknowledging the considerable achievements of the Labour government.

This year’s Brussels Labour fringe meeting, organised with the EPLP, attracted a record attendance of 250. Chaired by Brussels Labour’s honorary president, Neil Kinnock, the speakers included Emma Reynolds, a former Brussels Labour treasurer and now an MP, who began her intervention with a plug for Brussels Labour. Another speaker, Douglas Alexander MP, commented that Emma is one of the stars of new intake with a brilliant career ahead of her (she is already one of five Labour members on the Foreign Affairs Select Committee). The other speakers were Massimo D’Alema, a former prime minister of Italy, and Richard Howitt MEP.

All speakers stressed the importance for the UK’s own interests of active involvement in a strong EU. At the global level, the G8 has given way to the G20 but there is a real risk that the power relations are being dominated by the G2 of the United States and China: this needs to be turned into a G3, with an active and united EU voice.

Richard Howitt emphasised that a strong common EU foreign policy is vital for British national interests. The new External Action Service had been difficult to set up because of the lack of preparation, but thanks to Cathy Ashton and the EP’s use of its new powers, it was now taking shape. Massimo D’Alema emphasised the potential of the EAS but the need for a strong policy: the mere existence of it was not a guarantee of effective external action.

Douglas Alexander urged that we move on from talking about the reach or otherwise of the EU to understanding the implications of the rise of Asia. China’s role at the Copenhagen climate talks showed the change taking place in the balance of power. We need too to move from a narrative which depends on making the case for the EU by emphasising its role in keeping the peace (important but backward looking) to a forward looking perspective with an emphasis on four key areas where an EU collective approach is vital: climate, security, trade, and poverty.

Emma pointed out that the current government is demonstrating an outdated, imperialist view of the UK’s role in an increasingly multipolar world with a reliance on bilateral rather than multilateral relations. They overestimated their UK’s role in the world and underestimated the EU’s. As she put it, for William Hague, nostalgia is the way to the future.

Belinda Pyke | Chair, Brussels Labour

More conference photos are available at

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