So Labour has another stab at getting together some sort of EU policy. Ed Miliband is interviewed in The Sunday Telegraph and the only thing that seems to emerge is that Labour needs a “hard-headed” approach to the European Union, courtesy of further spinning from Douglas Alexander on the Andrew Marr show. This is presumably the latest attempt, after Douglas Alexander’s damp squib last autumn.
This prompts two questions: is the idea that Labour can be hard-headed on this actually realistic? And is it right?
On the first point the editorial in The Sunday Telegraph basically nails it – saying Ed’s rhetoric “fails to convince”. Precisely. If you want a tough line towards the European Union then Labour is not where you should go.
Then secondly, is the line articulated by Ed Miliband actually right? First of all in framing terms it makes me annoyed, and thinking of the Pachycephalosaurus dinosaur (pictured, with its hard head). Hard headed implies tough, harsh, nasty. Would Labour dare say it has a “hard-headed” approach to schools or hospitals? No it would not, because being seen to be harsh on such issues is at odds with the values of the party, the values that we are all better off if we work together to achieve collective goals.
Labour’s rhetoric should be that to achieve what we need to achieve in the UK, we also need the European Union. An unrestrained free market, with Britain outside the EU, would mean less social protection, more of a race to the bottom on tax, harsher conditions for workers. The social systems of countries across the European Union should be an inspiration for the UK. Labour has made noises saying the German social model is to be admired; the means to achieve it is at EU level.
Finally, on two specific, Ed Miliband is wrong.
Taking a pop at the EU’s agriculture budget is an easy one, but Labour’s record trying to do something about it while in government is woeful. Less CAP money means less money to UK farmers too. Are Ed Miliband and Douglas Alexander willing to face down the farmers? I suspect not. Plus the EU budget, at 1% of GDP, is not exactly massive anyway, and the 40% to agriculture looks so odd because the stuff that dominates national budgets – education, health, social security, defence – is not done at EU level.
Secondly, Ed Miliband once again revisits the issue of migration from central and eastern Europe. Here too there is a lot of hollow rhetoric. Remember the 10 countries joining the EU in 2004 had a population totalling 75 million, and only the UK, Ireland and Sweden allowed free movement of workers immediately. Cue major migration. 2014 will be different for Romania and Bulgaria. For a start the population of these countries totals about 30 million, and all 25 EU Member States will lift movement restrictions at the same time, and the UK is not exactly awash with jobs in the way it was in 2004. Worries about Croatia and Turkey are even more laughable – Croatia has 4.5 million people, and Turkey is years and years off, especially as Erdogan is ruminating about the death penalty.
So, in short, what did Ed Miliband and Douglas Alexander achieve today? Very, very little I would say.
The “hard-headed” (secessionist) approach in the UK seems to be closely linked to a vision of a country untrammelled by protection for life, health, workers, consumers, (small) investors, the environment or human rights – some sort of resurrected homeland for the Robber Barons.
No wonder the EU aims of a social market economy and solidarity feel alien to the proponents of this isolationist view, but somewhat astonishing that the Labour party shares the sentiment, while keeping the other European social democratic parties (PES) at arms length.