This ‘Tribune’ article was written for Notre Europe – Jacques Delors Institute.
In Britain when a family decides not to have a party to mark some calendar event it is usually said, ‘We’re having a quiet New Year’ or ‘I’m having a quiet birthday.’ The celebration of Britain’s fortieth anniversary of its membership of the European Community will be a particularly muted affair.
Any boisterous carousing is more likely to come from the other side. Britain’s dedicated anti-Europeans will congratulate themselves on the UK’s progressive disengagement from the European project; the ‘veto’ of the Fiscal Pact; the negative position on the EU budget voted in the House of Commons (thanks in part to an act of crass opportunism by Labour MPs); growing public support for a referendum; the inroads now being made by UKIP in national as well as European elections, the toil in Whitehall drawing up an inventory of competences to be repatriated to Britain, and the first opinion polls showing a strong majority for outright withdrawal. All the while the daily drip feed of anti-European bile from most of the media continues.
There are also worrying but understandable signs that the rising optimism of the anti-Europeans is mirrored by the frustration and annoyance of the UK’s friends and partners which begin to resemble the World War I recruiting song, “We don’t want to lose you but we think you ought to go”.
As the UK government tries to appease anti-Europeans at home through a policy of surly non-cooperation it alienates even members of what used to be an almost automatic support group of countries from Northern and Eastern Europe. Patience with Britain is being exhausted, and resistance to any future demands for special treatment growing.
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Brussels Labour, Labour International, and anyone with an interest in European politics came away revitalised and optimistic about Labour’s commitment to internationalism, and its prospects for the 2014 European elections. The European events themselves were lively, well attended, and set out the pro-European case very well.
Brussels Labour’s fringe, co-hosted with the Labour Movement for Europe, was a case in point. Over 150 of the party faithful battled across Manchester through thirst-quenching rain on Sunday lunchtime to hear a well-informed debate “Europe – moving beyond austerity onto plan B.” It was a particular pleasure to see former Brussels Labour Treasurer, Emma Reynolds MP, now Shadow Minister for Europe, speaking against the backdrop of our very own Brussels Labour banner.
Brussels Labour’s Honorary President Neill Kinnock chaired the event, and was as surprised as anyone that the first intervention from the floor was from Tim Montgomerie of the influential ConservativeHome website. I suppose he would be hard-pressed now to find 150 pro-Europeans in the whole Conservative party, never mind at one of their fringe events.
At the EPLP reception, the star turn was supposed to be Eddie Izzard, and I imagine that many of the 900 people crowding the room were there for him and Ed Miliband. But the biggest cheer of the evening was for S&D Group Leader Hannes Swoboda MEP, when he said “we need a strong Labour, in a strong Britain, in a strong Europe.”
It was great to see Axelle Lemaire as one of the speakers at the Labour International and EPLP breakfast fringe , where again it was standing room only. Axelle represents overseas voters in the French parliament, and many of us would like the UK to give us similar representation.
One theme that came across from all European events want that the UK is just about the only country which sees the EU not in terms of whether it should move left or right (and move on from Camerkozy austerity) but only whether we should be in or out. Glenis Willmott MEP’s plenary speech argued cogently for the Labour to set out a progressive vision for Europe, in particular with initiatives such as the Youth Jobs Guarantee, and although Ed Miliband’s speech as leader was light on detail, he gave a clear commitment to engagement in Europe and internationalism.
In June 2014, people from across Europe will elect the next European Parliament. They probably won’t do so in great numbers: at the last election in 2009, turnout was less than 50% in more than two-thirds of the European Union’s 27 member states.
In the UK, just over 34% of people voted. But next time, it could well be different. The European elections – which inspire apathy among many, and probably no more than a dutiful trudge to the polls for those who do vote – could have a major bearing on the UK’s future role in the world.
A win by the UK Independence Party at the 2014 European elections could set the UK on the course to a referendum on EU membership, and a likely exit from the EU (a rational debate being improbable in the hothouse atmosphere of a referendum campaign). This is something that is already concerning David Cameron.
It may seem absurd to suggest a Ukip win. This is, after all, a party that has no representation in the Westminster parliament. It has a history of infighting, expulsions and defections in the European Parliament and is a marginal annoyance in the chamber, with little influence. Ukip’s best ever performance in a national poll was in 2009, when it won 13 of the UK’s 72 seats in the European Parliament and beat Labour into third place. But that result was achieved with only 16.5% of the vote – and that on a low turnout and in an elected directly related to the party’s core issue.
However Ukip is regularly scoring around eight per cent in opinion polls – occasionally nudging ahead of the Liberal Democrats. It has dozens of councillors, especially in the Midlands and the South. And the Conservatives, now in power, will not attract in 2014 the protest vote that helped it to win the last three European elections. With the Conservatives now engrained with Euroscepticism, many Tory members could well lend their vote to Ukip to expedite the road to a referendum.
David Cameron is well aware of this fact – hence this weekend’s shift from opposing a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU (Saturday) to supporting one (Sunday). By Monday morning, his people were floating a potential date of May 2015, to coincide with the next general election.
This is cold and cynical calculation by the Prime Minister. He is cowed by the 100-or-so Tory backbench MPs who are strongly Eurosceptic and either want an ‘in-out’ vote or, as in the case of the former defence secretary, Liam Fox, a fundamental renegotiation of the UK’s engagement in the EU. As The Guardian neatly put it this morning, Mr Cameron is “led by the noes”.
Despite the Prime Minister spending two years telling the country that he is governing in the ‘national interest’, he now appears to be governing in the interests of the Conservative Party. He is playing fast and loose with the UK’s most important international economic and political relationship. It is a dangerous game.
Pressure is building on the Germans. Every international forum, G7, G8, G20 now turns into a coordinated onslaught to get the Berlin coalition government to change tack, to support a banking union, to underwrite the sovereign debt of other euro countries, to accept a change in the role of the Central Bank, and to modify its view that ever greater austerity represents salvation for errant member states.
Throughout this crisis, Berlin has reacted too little and too late. A clear signal in April 2010 could have halted the speculative undermining of the sovereign debt countries, kept their borrowing costs low and created a firewall around the currency. Obfuscation and denial have caused the costs of shoring up the euro to skyrocket to the extent that serial bail outs may be too testing not just for the mechanisms in place, but for the ECB even were it to be allowed to intervene directly.
The apparently hubristic obstinacy of Berlin (“if only the Greeks could be more like the Germans”) cannot be fully understood if the constraints are ignored. As others have commented, the new Germany has a strong economy but a weak political system: federation means that regional elections are taking place on average three or four times a year somewhere creating a climate of perpetual electioneering; public opinion and an increasingly eurosceptic press is unsympathetic towards the profligate south, and mistrusts European institutions; a cautious and sometimes vacillating Chancellor presides over a fissiparous coalition, one partner in which while under threat of extinction openly flirts with euroscepticism; any new measure requires the explicit approval of the Bundestag and in practice gives a veto to the SPD opposition; and the increasingly assertive Constitutional Court may on any occasion block any measure which is interpreted as ceding power to supranational institutions. The markets may ‘demand’ immediate action from Europe and from its largest member state in particular, but the German political system is poorly placed to oblige.
Paradoxically, the notion of ‘a great leap forward’ to political union begins to make sense in this context. Everybody can now see the institutional design faults in the original euro governance. It is also understood that guarantees for the debts of others require elements of multilateral supervision and even control of national budgets. The only way forward which would be compatible with German ideology and its constitutional requirements would be some transforming act of integration; with a quasifederal political union as an essential precondition for a fiscal and banking union.
Hence in the last few days, Eurobonds and a banking union are no longer dismissed out of hand, but viewed as problems of sequencing, as things which might be possible were the road cleared for political union. Hence the Chancellor and in particular her Finance Minister have upped the rhetoric on federal union. Hence her Foreign Minister has convened a working group to prepare constitutional proposals, and, paradox of paradox, intends inviting Laurent Fabius, the new French foreign minister, widely seen as the man who scuppered the Constitutional Treaty, to join.
The trouble with this scenario, by which the chastened European Union, recognising the need for stronger mechanisms to underpin the euro, and to build confidence between the virtuous northern states and the spendthrift south, decides on a qualitative reform of the way the union works, is not simply that any result from this process would take more time than the markets may be prepared to allow. It is that the politics of it may not now work. More >
In last Sunday’s Observer, we were told that Ed Miliband is being urged to pledge an ‘in-or-out’ referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union should Labour be elected in the 2015 General Election.
It is clear from this article, and other noises off (by Lord Mandelson, for example) that Labour Party opinion is being prepared for a change in direction, just months after Labour rejected the idea of such a referendum in a House of Commons vote.
It is ‘clever politics’, we are told. (For fans of political irregular verbs, I practise clever politics; you are opportunistic.) My view is that Labour is playing with fire. We do not want the most likely outcome (withdrawal), and while there may be some initial advantage in being the first to commit to such a referendum, the Conservatives, under pressure from the UK Independence Party, could do nothing but follow suit – eliminating that advantage.
If Labour did win in 2015, what next? There would be a distracting and unnecessary referendum. The Labour Party would be divided. The referendum would, based on current opinions, be lost. The government would lose credibility and authority just months after it had won an election. Instead, Labour should be working with its Socialist colleagues to develop an effective vision for Europe – a way-out of the dead-end into which the austerity-fetishists have driven us.
There are also non-partisan arguments against a referendum on EU membership. We are told that a plebiscite will ‘settle this issue once and for all’. This is nonsense. A narrow victory for the ‘pro-EU’ campaign – the only type of victory supporters of EU membership could possibly imagine at this stage – is more likely to give succour to the UKIP and its allies. The question will continue to be part of public discourse and we could well see a further referendum after the 2020 election. If anyone thinks Nigel Farage or Daniel Hannan will say, ‘Well, we gave it a good shot but the people have spoken and that’s it for another generation’ then they are seriously deluded.
And that is not to mention the many good reasons to oppose referendums on principle. They can be dangerous, distilling complex political debates into bumper-sticker-friendly yes-or-no arguments. Their results are misleading and without nuance. Options A and B may be on the ballot paper, but options C and D may be preferable to both. The 1999 referendum in Australia on maintaining the Queen as the Head of State is a case in point: polls showed that the majority of Australians wanted a republic – but they did not want the type of republic offered in the referendum. In the case of a vote on EU membership, people are being asked to take it or leave it – not to express discontent with particular parts of the European project and support for others, a position that probably reflects the majority view.
Read more here.
On 13 October 2011, Jan Royall, Baroness Royall of Blaisdon, delivered the John Fitzmaurice memorial lecture. A summary of the lecture is below, and the full speech can be read here.
Jan Royall was very happy to be back in Brussels to deliver the 2011 John Fitzmaurice memorial lecture.
For her, Brussels bring together three of the most important things in her life democratic socialism, Europe and friendship – and there were many old friends in the audience whom Jan had met during her time in Brussels.
Currently the Leader of the Opposition in the House of Lords and a Privy Councillor, Jan had previously been Leader of the House of Lords and a member of Gordon Brown’s cabinet from 2008-2010.
During her time with the European Commission, she was a long-serving member of the cabinet of Neil Kinnock and then Head of the Commission’s office in Wales before she re-entered British politics full time.
She began her address started by recalling that she first met John Fitzmaurice in the 1970s. John was an Oxford contemporary of Jan’s late husband Stuart Hercock, who died 2010 of prostate cancer. (Jan noted her belief that Stuart would still be alive today if he had had an early prostrate cancer test – and as part of the introduction to her lecture, she reminded all men present, especially middle-aged men, to have the test.)
Jan’s lecture began by looking back 16 years to the start of her time in Brussels – when Europe was a “beacon of hope” and there was optimism about jobs, growth and a prosperous future.
She regretted that more progress had not been made during the good times and that a lack of sufficiently bold political leadership contributed to the current problems.
Refreshingly she did not hesitate to be critical of some aspects of the European project – in particular the absence of the right mechanisms to manage the euro, and the fact that the EU institutions are too ‘distant’ from citizens.
One recurrent theme in her talk was the nature of the British press. A situation where politicians fear press reaction to their comments stifles them from saying what they really think – and so stifles meaningful broad debate on issues such as ‘Europe’.
Jan concluded her talk by recalling John Fitzmaurice fondly. “He was a decent and delightful human being”, she said. Jan reminded the audience that he was active not only in the European institutions and at high-level summits, but also on the ground: standing in elections where he had almost no chance of success, and taking progressive democratic socialism ideas and arguments to the doorsteps across the UK.
Mark Major, with Kathryn Seren
There is more information on prostate cancer tests here.
The election campaign now well and truly underway in France probably matters more directly to us in Britain than the razzmatazz of the American elections in November (providing of course that the more gruesome Republican candidates are weeded out in the primaries).
François Hollande may not have been the first choice for many socialists – his very ‘ordinariness’ places charisma outside his range; his programme is cautiously social democratic, not transformative; other more exciting contenders have – how can we put it delicately? – fallen by the wayside. But he was the democratic choice of three million Socialist party members and sympathisers in an open primary which gave the Left a game-changing kick-off in the campaign.
His assured performance at the rally at Le Bourget in late January, addressing 25,000 supporters (that’s ten times the size of the Sheffield rally and without the gaffes), on TV and in a programme which rightly places all the emphasis on jobs and growth have given him a head-start. In the French presidential and legislative elections in April and May of this year Europe’s Left has its first chance of re-gaining power in a major EU member state since 2004.
This matters. First it means that at the top table in Europe there will be at least one significance voice opposed to the technocratic imposition of continent-wide austerity which is the mantra of the currently all-powerful centre-right. Hollande is committed to re-negotiate the ‘Fiscal Pact’ to be agreed in principle by 25 member states in March.
The French socialists do not reject budgetary discipline but want, quite reasonably to avoid arbitrary straight-jackets being imposed on member states without any accompanying measures for growth, and without adequate parliamentary safeguards. And their party has started working out a coordinated economic programme with German social democrats in the fairly confident expectation that ‘Merkozy’ will be seen by 2013 as a kind of historical aberration. More >
How a dodgy ideology made the rich richer, the rest of us poorer and left the economy in ruins.
Around 1980, something changed: a seemingly unstoppable evolution in western societies went into reverse. For half a century the gap between rich and poor had been narrowing: an inevitable consequence, it seemed, of universal education, mass production, trade unionism and the rise of democracy.
Yet within a few years this trend had been sharply reversed. In the subsequent three decades, the western world has witnessed a dramatic growth in inequality. The top 1% have appropriated almost all the fruits of growth, while middle and low income groups have stagnated or worse.
Stewart Lansley’s new book, ‘The Cost of Inequality‘ (Gibson Square, 2011) looks at why this happened, and what have been the consequences. His central argument, impressively documented in a tour through the workings of modern capitalism, is that growing inequality caused the financial meltdown of 2008.
But along the way, he establishes two even more sweeping arguments, both of which tell us something important about the mess in which Europe now finds itself. He shows that the growth in inequality has its roots in an ideological shift that swept the western world from the late 1970s onwards. And he shows that, long before 2008, that ideology had spectacularly failed to deliver any of the promised benefits. More >
You know something is wrong when John Redwood, Boris Johnson, the Murdoch press and the Mail are calling it a triumph.
Even on its own terms the December EU summit plumbs new depths of government mendacity and incompetence. Even if one accepts that the aims of Cameron were legitimate – sheltering the financial sector which finances his party, or defending the single market, he came home less than empty-handed.
By forfeiting the right to negotiate an EU Treaty at the very outset, the government ensured that the summit was a quadruple failure for Britain.
First we will have no influence on the final form and content of the new intergovernmental treaty; if the UK had stayed in it could at every stage have fought its corner, paragraph by paragraph.
Second, we have achieved an isolation so melancholic that even our most traditional ‘friends’ like the eurosceptic Czechs and the hard-right Hungarians have abandoned us.
Third, even our established reputation for diplomatic competence is undermined by the crass failure to prepare the ground, by springing a text on the institutions and the other member states at the last moment, and by rejecting out of hand the procedural compromise offered by European Council President Van Rompuy.
Fourth it confirms the message to the Americans and others that doing business with Europe means working with Berlin, Paris and Brussels, not London. The business community may well draw the same lesson.
Cameron’s excuse that we reacted late because the Franco-German proposals were only tabled earlier in the week is doubly lame; a serious government might well have thought it best to take an initiative earlier rather than just reacting to proposals from others; and it has been clear for two months at least that some form of Treaty change was going to dominate this summit’s agenda.
As to our special pleading for the banks, financial services, hedge funds etc., nothing has changed. EU financial regulation is and will continue to be decided by qualified majority. There was no veto on that; there will be no veto- quite rightly because financial services regulation is part and parcel of internal market rules.
The only thing that changes is that the 26 will now develop the habit of working together on the broad range of economic policy, and that the voice of the most economically liberal, free market, high finance-friendly member state will no longer be heard. One would have to be exceptionally naive to imagine that the 26 will refrain from discussions about any aspect of EU economic and social legislation simply out of consideration for a government that has of its own free will boycotted their meetings. More >