Friday, 13 February 2009

So what is the positive case for Europe?

I have blogged about the detailed argument which Gary Titley made in his Fabian lecture last night. He set some major challenges for those who believe in the EU and British engagement in it, and there was a fired up debate at the event about how to respond.

I was struck by three things:

1. The scale of the challenges being set out for the EU were in stark contrast to either the legitimacy and political capital available to deal with them, and that will remain the case unless the current economic and political crisis does become the opportunity for a major change of approach.

2. The European narratives and arguments of a generation ago need a vast amount of rethinking and renewal if they are to connect to the causes for which the EU is needed. We would need to invent a multilateral EU if we did not have one, but the 'sceptic right is making the running, and the vacuum that is Conservative strategy on the EU has never been effectively scrutinised or challenged.

3. And 2009 is a year of responding to the financial crisis, the G20 summit, the chance to rebuild a multilateral transatlantic relationship, and of European elections and the Copenhagen climate summit. So if we can’t make a case this year, is it ever going to happen?

But it is mid-February already. I don’t know how many Labour party members know what the party’s argument is going to be in the European elections this June. I don’t think I do, so I am not well placed to share it with you. There is now strong awareness of the need to mobilise against the BNP threat, but what is the Labour case going to be?

So what should it be? What needs to change? And how can it happen?


Tim Gore said...

I think we need to stop putting 'Europe' in a box, and talking about it as if it is a separate issue from all the other political and social concerns we have.

We've been trying, I think, to stop doing that with foreign policy in general for some time now (Sunder et al had a pretty big hand in the early days of that at the Foreign Policy Centre) - to break down the barriers that a diplomatic elite place around foreign policy - to democratise it in some sense, and make it part of our everyday political discourse.

Europe is public diplomacy writ large - its politics is just as much about the relations of normal citizens, businesses and social movements as it is about the high-level negotiations in European summits (fascinating political theatre though they are).

I'm not sure we need a 'new narrative' of Europe: I think we might just need to make sure we join up the political arguments we make 'domestically', with an account of the role that the EU plays in them. The fact is that very few of our highest political ambitions on the Left can be realised except through the institutions and governance systems of the EU.

Gary Titley's proposal to take the Europe minister out of the FCO, and put them into the Cabinet Office seems to me exactly the right step in that direction.

Tom Stratton said...

I agree Europe must be brought into mainstream political debate if we in Britain are to get the most out of its institutions. As someone who has followed Europe from a distance to date, a few points Gary Titley made (and some he didn’t) caught my attention.
Firstly, Sunder’s observation that the benefits of Europe must be connected to issues where it is most needed is absolutely correct; the instinctively defensive position Britain currently adopts when discussing the issue often leads to an unwillingness to engage with the subject objectively. If people are able to see the tangible benefits increased engagement would bring to issues they care about they might be more inclined to listen. Secondly, the relationship between the British state and the European Union needs to be clarified. Gary Titley stressed with some success that involvement in Europe does not mean federalism, but would involve an extension of Britsh domestic policy around principles most in this country would endorse. Finally, and something Gary Titley did not mention, the financial institutions and decision-makers must be better explained and held accountable. The news stories that stick in my mind on the issue concern France and Germany using their clout to bend the rules when it suits them. These stories only serve to strengthen the argument that Britain is sacrificing its sovereignity through further engagement in Europe; more clear and easily accessible information on financial arrangements and, if lacking in transparency, reformation of these institutions could shake Britain out of its comfort zone and force us into serious public consideration of the Euro. If a minister in the Cabinet Office would advance these three areas I am all in favour.