Cameron opens Europe’s Pandora’s box

As the dust settles on David Cameron's speech, what real impact has it had? Despite being met with scepticism throughout Europe, it has above all highlighted the need for an open discussion on the EU in Britain – and how the left has so far failed to address the European question.

Almost two weeks after it was delivered, three reactions can be seen to the speech.

The first from the British right was to welcome its High Noon tone of a final show-down with Brussels. At the UKIP end of the xenophobic right there was a sense their fox might have been shot. For ten years the cry of the right has been “What do we want? - A Referendum! When do we want it? Now!” Cameron has bowed to their wishes. A red-faced angry Nigel Farage said Cameron was lying and as with previous Tory calls and semi-pledges on referendums this too was a promise made to be broken. But Cameron’s in-the-camera statement “There will be an In-Out referendum” was unambiguous. He did not say a Yes-No vote but an “In-Out” choice and then said he hoped Brussels would make unspecified concessions to allow Britain its own personalised space within an EU which would be open to British goods and services but with the UK exempted from other common obligations written into all the Treaties since 1957.

The second reaction was from the continental EU establishment which gave vent to its scarcely disguised dislike of Britain. There was a Pavlovian "How dare he?!" element to this as the punditocracy thundered about the perfide Albion in French, Spanish, Italian and even Swiss papers. Thomas Kielinger, Die Welt's thoughtful London correspondent, criticised the crude attack on Cameron from the German Foreign Minister, Guido Westerwelle, in an op-ed Westerwelle wrote in Welt. Kielinger argued that Cameron's declaration that there were serious reforms needed in the EU posed a question that could not be wished away. This is common platitudinous ground and Dutch and Finnish politicians have said Cameron is making a fair point.

In a slightly different register Jean Pisani-Ferry (Director of the Bruegel think thank) said the creation of a Eurozone EU with its own rules, interventions and source of authority was creating a new Europe. The bi-EU (BIEU) was not 2 speed, nor inner and outer zones but it was leading to something new with a Eurozone EU operating differently from a non-€ EU. Cameron speaking for a UK that would "never" join the Euro (a position confirmed by Labour's Ed Miliband who said “not” rather than “never”) was entitled to point out that some new settlement was needed. The Brussels-Strasbourg left also enjoyed attacking Cameron with predictable denunciations from Daniel Cohn Bendit or Guy Verhofstadt. But they might ask why so few people vote in European Parliament elections and why so many racists, xenophobes and populists sit in the assembly? The European Parliament is part of the democratic deficit problem faced by the EU and Cameron is not wrong to ask how national parliaments can be better involved in European affairs.

The third response was to ask what happens between now and 2017, the putative date of an In-Out UK referendum. Pro-EU enthusiasts like Timothy Garton Ash have long demanded an In-Out Referendum as a kind of magic bullet that would put to bed once and for all the Europe question in British politics. They forgot that the 1975 referendum gave rise to an intense political anti-Europeanism which within 5 years led Labour to call for withdrawal. Once Labour, after being trounced by the then pro-EU Margaret Thatcher in 1983 and 1987, accepted Britain would stay in Europe, the Eurosceptic virus was transmitted to the Conservatives. In his elegantly written speech Cameron had pretty things to say about Europe. Yet as party leader he led the Conservatives out of the European People’s Party, the alliance of centre-right parties to which Angela Merkel, and the prime ministers of Spain, Poland, Sweden, the Netherlands, and key Baltic states belong. Cameron ensured that only fervent anti-Europeans were chosen as candidates to be MPs. He promoted to the cabinet obsessive Eurosceptics like Iain Duncan Smith, William Hague and Owen Paterson. He took from Open Europe, the City-financed anti-European think tank, key people to work on Tory strategy.

Cameron has indulged his party’s venomous dislike of Europe which is seen, like the Catholic Church in the nineteenth century or communism in the twentieth, as a foe of Britain’s culture, traditions and needs. As he struggles to win votes from UKIP and maintain control over his fractious party, we can expect to see a reversion to the genuine EU-hostile Cameron.

He has never explained how he can obtain the renegotiation he demands. The European Commission and Council have no legal authority to start negotiations with Britain (or any other EU member state) that wants a unilateral set of derogations from the Treaty. Cameron appears to be placing hopes in a completely new Treaty that some believe is required to give full legal authority to the new Eurozone arrangements. But France along with other Eurozone countries like Ireland or de facto Eurozone countries like Denmark have made clear their opposition to a new Treaty which would require ratification by referendum and plunge Europe into years of fraught Treaty negotiation followed by uncertain plebiscites. It would be a re-run of the disaster of the first decade’s constitutional treaty negotiations followed by its rejection in France and the Netherlands and the then hastily cobbled Lisbon Treaty with its new offices of President of the Council and Foreign Affairs supremo - which have not worked as hoped.

The idea of reliving that decade horribilis just to appease Cameron is not very enticing to the rest of EU capitals. German officials at the highest level explain to any Brit they meet that Berlin cannot make major treaty derogation concessions to the UK unilaterally. Social Europe which Tories loathe is not a problem in Nordic nations where Cameron claims support. If Germany returns to a grand coalition after the September elections, the SPD will not countenance a re-write of the Treaty to allow an investment and trading special advantage to the UK by a return to sweatshop pay and hours.

But where is the British left in all this debate? Its absence has been marked. To begin with, Ed Miliband said he opposed an In-Out referendum but then qualified that by saying he was not joining Cameron’s call for a referendum right now. This was sensible as Labour MPs were hammered in both the 2005 and 2010 elections as were Labour MEP candidates in the 2009 European Parliament election by Conservative and LibDem (as well as UKIP and BNP) promises of EU referendums. It is doubtful if Labour can afford not to have a referendum pledge in its electoral locker when other parties offer one.

So the real need is for Labour to define a coherent European policy. After the early pro-European enthusiasm of the 1997 Blair generation, the reality of power turned Labour into a much more cautiously prudent party on Europe. Blair had promised a referendum on Euro entry in 1996. In 1997 the pound sterling was and remained for a decade over-valued against all other EU currencies and especially the Euro after 1999. This alone made even the most pro-Euro enthusiasts in Labour unable to argue for a UK entry at a rate that would have destroyed all export hopes. A referendum in the 1997-2001 government would have reinvigorated the defeated Tories, brought the off-shore press out of its love affair with Blair into full-on anti-Euro hate, and split Labour MPs, many of whom had not been fully weaned off their 1980s Euroscepticism, embraced at the time by Robin Cook and Jack Straw.

The claim that Gordon Brown kept the UK out of the Euro is spurious even if the red herring of his 5 economic tests bought time and lowered the UK Euro-entry fever. With his referendum pledge and given the over-valued sterling, Blair never seriously had an opportunity to take Britain into the Euro along with Germany, France and other founder members.

For most of the Labour government’s period in office, the policy on Europe was to say, see and speak as little Europe as possible. Blair made pro-EU speeches in Warsaw, in Aachen, in Paris, or in Brussels but never in Britain. Gordon Brown’s team were openly Eurosceptic, briefing journalists against the Euro and Blair’s EU policy. As a result Labour MPs lost the ability to make the case for Europe or, for the most part, even to understand what was happening in other EU capitals. The mono-lingualism of Britain’s political class did not help. There was no efforts to create a knowledgeable cadre of Labour politicians with experience of Europe. There was an endless churn of Europe ministers – 13 in all - while Blair installed as foreign secretaries politicians who had been leading anti-Europeans barely a decade before. The Iraq conflict destroyed any hopes of building lasting alliances with Berlin and Paris and flirtations with right-wing Spanish and Italian prime ministers made London look opportunistic in the eyes of heavyweight northern European leaders.

Britain opposed the agency workers directive being applied to the UK. This measure which stops the ruthless exploitation of workers from other European countries by obliging firms to take them on with full staff rights after a qualifying period of work might have lessened the indigenous working class anger about perceived job displacement by Polish, Lithuanian, Slovak and other workers from new EU member states after 2004.

Labour remained and remains culturally pro-European - with Ed Miliband’s background how could he be anything else? Serious Labour shadow ministers hope to return to their red boxes in 2015 and know that devoting the first years of what will be very difficult government to EU negotiations and a possible referendum is a nightmare. But it was New Labour that opted for the populism of plebiscites after 1997 with referendums on Scotland, Ulster, London and promises of more on the EU constitutional treaty or future Euro entry. Transferring political authority from the representative democracy of parliament to the plebiscitary democracy of referendums has its dangers.

Labour remains without a coherent EU policy also because the left as a whole does not have one. The left cannot make up its mind if the EU is “a capitalist club” as Tribune put it, a component element of a neo-liberal Davos world order, or what? Not since Tom Nairn’s scornful eloquence in his “The Left Against Europe” has there been a single book which offers a left perspective on Europe. The Guardian is culturally pro-European but also hostile to the Euro and economic integration. Politicians or intellectuals who try and place a broadly pro-European comment in The Guardian are rejected in favour of the vapourings of a Zizek or the federal fantasies of a Habermas. Many Labour MPs have run with the current of anti-EU worker prejudice. Instead of calling for fair wages and the full implementation of EU social directives that would protect both indigenous and incomer workers, Labour has not challenged the business demands of the CBI and other employers calling for rejection of fair play in the workplace.

Those pro-Europeans on the left, including the present writer, have spent too much time defending the institutions and personnel of Brussels and Strasbourg. There are serious discussion organized by thoughtful outfits like Policy Network and London is home to two excellent EU think tanks – the Centre for European Reform and the European Council on Foreign Relations. But these are ring-holding discussant bodies, not campaigning politically-focused institutes. Trade unions have lost their early 1990s enthusiasm for Europe or at least the social Europe John Major refused to sign up for. Labour did embrace social Europe but trade union organization in the EU remains wholly national and all the social rules in the world cannot alter economic laws of market competition and the desire of workers to have access to the cheapest possible goods. The left has no Nigel Farage, a cheeky chappie populist communicator, to mock the lies and dishonesties of the Europhobes. The BBC follows the Daily Mail-Spectator line on most EU questions and has given Farage more space and status than any politician from the pro-EU Labour or LibDem parties who actually win parliamentary elections.

The anti-EU think tanks know what they want and say it. The left’s policy groups give the impression of apologizing for the EU and finding a dozen things that are wrong with European constructions before grudgingly admitting that perhaps the EU has some positive aspects. Other pro-EU outfits like Business for New Europe or the new organization, British Influence in Europe, support chiefly the liberal single market aspects of the EU and cannot endorse social or foreign policy Europe or an EU developing a world political region distinct from the United States or the BRICS. They aim to convert the Tories and take Labour's pro-EU position for granted. This may be a serous mistake as a populist left hostility to Europe in the style of a Jean-Luc Mélenchon in France or Syriza in Greece can easily emerge on the left.

In this sense Cameron is exposing the extent to which most of the British political class has no real vision of Europe. Like him politicians of all parties lurch opportunistically from one EU moment to the next deciding on policy responses not out of ideological belief or principle or the result of mature political debate (can anyone recall the last time a Labour conference had a serious discussion on Europe?) but tactical advantage and headline grabbing.

This is a shame as many British universities have first-rate European studies departments which are an intellectual resource for a modern EU debate. The former MEP and leader of the Labour group in the European Parliament until 2000, Alan Donnelly, has called in the New Statesman for Ed Miliband to set up a Commission on Europe, modelled loosely on the Commission on Social Justice which did important work in opening up new policy thinking based on evidence and government possibility prior to the 1997 election. A wide-ranging Commission on Europe could help Labour define policy and involve many groups, especially outside the London elites, who feel shut out by the BBC and the Euro hostility or cynicism of the media.

Cameron has unleashed a political process that could yet end in Britain quitting the EU. An In-Out plebiscite means what it says. The assumption that all rational men and women of good will would not countenance such a step is far from proven. In referendums voters often answer the wrong question. Labour and the British liberal-left’s failure to provide an explanatory narrative and political support for the EU ever since the party turned from outright Euroscepticism 25 years ago may now cost Labour dear if the impression grows that Cameron at least has a policy and a determination to go jusqu’à bout.

The European question is set to dominate British politics for the next few years. Like the issue of free trade or the question of Irish religious and national rights and identity the Europe conundrum will continue to dominate and determine the course of British politics for some time yet.

About the author

Denis MacShane is a former Europe minister and writes on European politics.