Labour Party says ‘no’ to the United States of Europe

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The British Labour Party wants the United Kingdom to remain a key player in the European Union but would not support a fully federal United States of Europe, Shadow Foreign Secretary Douglas Alexander has claimed. Speaking in advance of the landmark address on Europe by United Kingdom Prime Minister David Cameron – expected to set out a new doctrine on the UK-EU relationship – Alexander put forward an alternative vision.

In a lengthy speech, which ran to more than 5,000 words, at the Chatham House think-tank in London – Alexander claimed to be delivering "Labour's thinking both on why the UK should be part of the union and why and how the EU needs to change". But despite the assertion that this new agenda would reshape UK-EU relations, Alexander's words amounted to little more than a reaffirmation of Britain's commitment to remaining inside the European club while at the same time pushing for reforms. Despite that, the MP insisted: "It is simply wrong to suggest that rejecting the prime minister's approach means Labour is accepting the status quo.

"For Labour, unlike some Conservatives, being pro-reform is not a proxy for being anti-Europe. Indeed, for Labour, the reform of Europe should not be seen a question mark over our commitment to Britain's future within Europe. Instead it not just the safest ground, but also the most solid foundation, on which a positive case about Britain's membership can be made – and the concerns of the public addressed. I believe the modern world provides the rationale both for the EU, and for its reform."

Increasingly, federalists have called for 'a closer union' with greater powers and increased budgets – rather than a rationalised version of the EU as Labour had petitioned for. But Alexander insisted federalism should not be the "desired destination". He argued: "The future of the union is not – and must not – be defined as uniform progress towards a common federal government or the merging of national identities into a United States of Europe.

"Instead, Labour's vision of Europe is a flexible Europe with a common political framework that can permanently accommodate varying levels of integration among member states. This is not an a la carte Europe but one where member states choose, collectively and collaboratively, to pool sovereignty in those areas where they judge that they can achieve more together than they can alone. That means there maybe areas where member states will in future decide to do less together but Labour is clear that it also means there could be areas where member states might start to do more together."

Referring briefly to the recent American intervention, when Barack Obama's administration attempted to use its leverage in the 'special relationship' to make it clear that the United States expected the UK to remain at the heart of the EU – Alexander then attempted a popular culture reference to solidify his argument. Name-checking the award-winning US film 'Lincoln', directed by Stephen Spielberg, he stated:" "David Cameron's approach to politics is almost exactly the opposite of Lincoln's.

"One of the domestic political consequences of the global financial crisis was that David Cameron never managed to complete the modernisation of his party – whether he ever had the desire, or intention to, is another question. But a consequence of this failure to modernise is that he failed to change his party's approach to Europe. And this failure to first challenge, and then unite his party on Europe means David Cameron has been living on borrowed time since the day he walked through the door of Number 10. We have a prime minster who simply cannot reconcile the demands of his party, with the needs of his country. We will have a British prime minister sleepwalking towards (EU) exit, knowing he is letting down the national interest, but too weak to do anything about it."

Acknowledging the "surge" of UKIP, which had propelled the party up the polls by way of anti-EU public feeling stirred up by the largely Eurosceptic media in the UK, Alexander said: "It is a symptom of a growing sense among some that British political parties simply don't understand their lives or share their fears. That is why to simply insult the party and its voters – as David Cameron has done – is exactly the wrong thing to do.

"I recognise that the Conservative Party – and indeed some within my own party – are concerned about the impact of UKIP on their electoral prospects. But the depth of concern about UKIP is not always matched by a depth of understanding. The most comprehensive survey of UKIP voters yet undertaken – a huge poll of 20,000 supporters done last month by Lord Ashcroft found in his words 'the UKIP threat is not about Europe' and confirmed that issues like jobs, welfare, and immigration scored higher than Europe amongst these voters list of concerns.

"The UKIP vote rising does not prove to me that more people are convinced we would be better off out – it proves to me that we have to be making the case for Europe, and so much else, differently. That is why Labour says clearly to them – yes, the United Kingdom's future lies in Europe, but in a Europe we will work to change and reform."

Attempting to explain why Labour would not commit either to holding a referendum or to not holding a plebiscite – some would say unsuccessfully – he claimed: "Were Labour to come out and call for a referendum the night before, or morning after, David Cameron makes his own speech, I think the public would see through it. They would see the announcement for what it was – opportunistic political positioning rather than serious considered policy-making.

"So let me set out Labour's position on the issue of an in/out referendum. We are clear that to announce one in these circumstances will not serve Britain's national interest. The priority should be to promote growth at home and secure influence abroad. And committing to an in/out referendum tomorrow will make it harder, not easier, to deliver on these two objectives. It risks up to seven years of economic uncertainty which could deter potential investors and undermine the prospects for recovery."

However, he added: "Not agreeing with the prime minister's approach is not, and cannot, be a justification for ignoring the public's very real concerns. Who could deny that hostility towards the institutions of the EU has grown as a consequence of the Euro crisis? Frankly that is no surprise. But this public hostility is too often misunderstood. Of course there are those that are in principle opposed to our membership of the union. For them, no justification in terms of enhanced power, status or security would be worth the pooling of sovereignty that a union of 27 member states inevitably entails. Let me today be clear to these people. Labour disagrees with you and will seek to win your vote by persuading you of our case."

Many commentators have suggested that the UK will become alienated as a strengthened eurozone core expands its influence and power. Although maintaining the line that Britain would remain outside the single currency bloc under a Labour government, Alexander insisted that he would attempt to persuade colleagues that the "the design of the euro needs to be revisited" and that the UK needed to be involved in eurozone reform discussions.

"No one knows how the changes currently being contemplated within the eurozone will affect Britain's relationship with the EU, or indeed the nature of our membership," he added. "It is simply wrong to suggest that this process is something that will happen to us. Indeed, we have the power and indeed the responsibility to decide what happens and how it happens. It is also why it is crucial that we always ensure a British seat at the negotiating table when these decisions are being made – rather than walk away from talks before they have even really begun, as the prime minister did in December 2011."

Indicating that Labour would also pursue a platform of "reform" and "restraint" when it came to the EU budget, Alexander said: "It may only be 1 per cent of gross domestic product, but it could be far better used. It should focus on those items where spending at EU level can save money at national level, through economies of scale or by avoiding duplication. Far too much money still goes on agricultural subsidies, instead of on policies to promote growth, cohesion and development or to support the EU's vital role in international affairs.

"The Common Agricultural Policy is an obstacle to international trade liberalisation, creates too few jobs and introduces distortions so there is not a level playing field. Neither we, nor Europe, can afford this waste. Structural funds — currently used to promote growth and investment in the EU — make up around 35 per cent of annual EU expenditure but are distributed according to overlapping and, at times, competing objectives agreed decades ago. Instead, that money must be spent on promoting growth and jobs in deprived areas."

Despite his demands for a more efficient and lower spending EU, Alexander also argued for the creation of a new post – a European "commissioner for growth". The commissioner would assess "the impact of every new piece of legislation on the potential to promote growth across the EU", said Alexander. "This will improve accountability and help sharpen the EU's focus on this vital agenda."

In addition, Labour would lobby other member states to push for a more "streamlined and effective" European Parliament as well as abolition of the second EP seat. "But given opposition from the French and despite other's best efforts, change will be difficult and should not prevent us from being prepared to looking at other areas of possible reform," added Alexander. "So we should be looking at ways to bring down the cost of the parliament and how the workings of the European Commission could be reformed to help it operate more effectively. It makes no sense to divide up the functions of the commission into 27 separate pieces if in doing so we undermine the commission's ability to operate effectively."

On the free movement of people within the EU, Alexander admitted that this policy was "putting on some local communities here in the UK", adding: "For too long, those wanting to make the case for the EU would shy away from talking about one of its most prominent components – the free movement of people. This must stop. We must be clear about the advantages that many British citizens get from this.

"Latest figures show that over 875,000 British people are officially registered as living in another EU country, and we can all tell personal anecdotes about the benefits this seemingly abstract principle has on our day to day lives – from retirement choices to work opportunities and study abroad schemes. It is true that far more people are moving around Europe than ever before. Enlargement brings enlarged freedom of movement, which underpins the many benefits of the single market but also creates certain pressures.

"Labour has recently recognised these pressures in a way we haven't in the past. Labour has already set out that it regrets not implementing the full transitional arrangements that were available to it during the last round of EU enlargement and would do differently now. We believe the EU should look to go further than that and look at ways of giving member states more flexibility over the transitional arrangements that they sign up to – both to relax them more when those countries see fit, but also to include the possibility of tightening them further if necessary.

"But we should not promise what we cannot deliver on immigration from within the union. That is why we must also manage those impacts and reform our economy, to address people's concerns on the likes of agency workers and workplace segregation. The EU does not currently collect data on the size of the flows of people moving between member states.

"This data is vital to helping us better understand the implications of the Free Movement Direct – and therefore enable all member states – including the UK to manage its consequences. On this the EU needs to show increased responsibility. The interplay of EU immigration and social security provisions are a source of real and legitimate concern."

Promising to be different from the Tories when it came to building relationships with other member states, Alexander maintained that Labour would "convince, rather than coerce, our European Partners". This would contrast with Cameron's "unilateralist approach to repatriation – that presumes changes will be agreed in Europe simply by making the case that they are 'best for Britain'," said Alexander. "This is not just bad politics, it is bad diplomacy," he added.

"It is the wrong approach because it will fail to deliver. Opening the door to an a la carte EU – where member states defend change based on the narrowest definition of their own national interest – doesn't just undermine the principle of European cooperation; it could in effect undermine the interests of the UK. It would leave open the door to other member states repatriating, reforming and renegotiating vital components of the EU that the UK benefits from – not least the single market. It won't be accepted. It won't work."

Seeming to concur with Europhiles making the case for a strong a united Europe on the world stage – in order to capitalise on globalisation and trade deals with emerging nations – Alexander said that "the benefits of EU membership go beyond a simple ledger of accounts – an exercise of costs to the tax payer and benefits accrued". He continued: "The EU was originally founded on the principle not only of cooperation, but also of promoting peace after decades of a continent savaged by war. While this peace now seems assured, it must never be taken for granted, nor the importance of this achievement diminished – as the recent awarding of the Nobel Prize reminds us.

"Today, the peace that it established allows the EU to today become an effective and vital vehicle for amplifying power. This is true in economics, in trade, in defence, foreign policy and global challenges such as climate change. It gives us a weight collectively that on our own we lack. And it does so at a time in our history when this has arguably never been more important.

"If we accept this is a central feature of the emerging age, then, in that context, it is worth listing a few basic facts. As of today, China has a population three times that of the whole of the EU combined. India has over a billion people. Indonesia is three times the size of the largest European country – Brazil is two times bigger. Russia, Turkey, Mexico, Vietnam, the Philippines and Egypt all have bigger populations today than any single EU nation.

"Against this backdrop, the case for the UK's future in Europe is not a matter of outdated sentiment. It's not even a matter of party ideology. It's a matter of simple arithmetic. Nor are the benefits simply about our ability to travel, work, study and live across Europe. They have to do with Britain's role in the changing world and place in the global race. About what kind of nation we are. And what kind of nation we aspire to be in the decades ahead.

"In an age of countries the size of continents our membership gives us access and influence to the biggest global trading bloc with a gross domestic product of €12.6 trillion in 2011 – prizing open new frontiers that would be otherwise unreachable including 46 vital EU trade agreements with other countries. In an age of common threats that permeate through national borders, membership gives us the power of collective action and pooled resources that helps make us safer and more secure – whether that be through tackling climate change, cross border crime and terror, targeted EU sanctions on Iran or EU neighbourhood funds to help counter the spread of extremism.

"In a world where power is shifting eastwards, in what many predict will be the Asian Century, when the United States is pivoting to Asia; the EU strengthens rather than weakens out trans-Atlantic relationship. Britain is a top-table member of not just the EU – but also of NATO, the G8 and the G20, the Commonwealth and the United Nations Security Council. But these are overlapping and interdependent spheres of influence, not mutually exclusive power bases that we have to choose between. On so many issues that matter – jobs, growth, trade, security in central Europe and the Middle East – the EU is an indispensable force-multiplier for all its members – including the UK."

Concluding his remarks, Alexander called upon the prime minister to take not of warnings from America and the business community over UK isolationism. "Setting aside the immediate pressures of party politics and taking that longer view, Britain stands stronger in the world as part of the EU," said Alexander. "In truth, if an institution for regional cooperation like the EU did not exist today – as Labour, we would be arguing for it to be invented. In the modern world neighbourhoods matter as well as networks. The modern world provides both the rationale for the EU and for its reform.

"It is a true tragedy that David Cameron's party simply won't let him address this task in a serious and sensible way. And so it falls to Labour, and to many others, to give voice to the national interest. We will make the hard headed, patriotic case, founded on the national interest, both for Britain in Europe and for change in Europe. That is what we believe. And that is where we stand. And that is what, in the months and years ahead, we intend to do."

From: 18/01/2013


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