Friday, 13 February 2009

A stark warning on Europe

Pro-Europeans face an uphill battle even to maintain membership of the European Union if they can not make and win the argument as to why full EU engagement must be part of Britain’s future and the governance of Britain, and challenge the sense that the European project is a conspiracy against British interests.

That was the stark warning issued by Gary Titley MEP last night, in his suitably wide-ranging Fabian lecture tonight, having stood down as leader of Labour’s MEPs last month as he prepares to end twenty years in the European Parliament .

The speech (a link to the full text will follow) was much less about the immense changes in Europe since 1989 and rather about the scale of its future challenges.

* Would Europe exert an influence proportionate to its size and strength, or would it remain in a mood of negative introspection?
* In Britain, why was the European Union less understood and less popular, a dozen years after the election of the most pro-European government for decades? Would the current economic crisis be an opportunity to shift the argument, or the latest opportunity missed?

Titley rejected the argument that Europe was less relevant in a global age: ‘We have a global voice because we have a European voice’ he argued, and offered no fewer than eight wishes for the Europe
1. the need for a Cabinet rank Europe Minister, in the Cabinet Office not the Foreign Office, so that the policy and political connections would be properly made;
2. the serious commitments to EU capacity needed, for example in Afghanistan, for the hopes of a serious partnership with a more multilateral US administration to be realised.
3. The supranational supervision of cross-border finance.
4. A European energy policy.
5. That financial reform should involve
6. For the social dimension to be stressed to show that Europe had a soul: this was not, he stressed, a lowest common denominator politics of regulatory harmonisation, based on French socialist myths about the British sending children up chimneys, but a Social Inclusion and Solidarity Pact which would ‘show that Europe cares’
7. For a children’s life chances agenda to give a face to what the social dimension was about. (Something Titley had pushed to Robin Cook in 1997, finding the Foreign Secretary’s interest blocked by a sheer ‘Sir Humphrey’ approach of the FCO and civil service).
8. For the need for European engagement to be embraced as part of Britain’s future.

All of the others depended on the last.

Here Titley’s charge was that the problem of thinking of Europe as foreign policy ‘over there’, the Alastair Campbell dictum that there are ‘no votes in Europe’ and a politics of fear and caution added up to a failure to make an argument. Ministers too often seemed to hope Europe would go away, ceding the public debate to an ever more strident Euroscepticism.

The very well attended event and the debate sparked by the speech demonstrated that Labour’s committed pro-European caucus has both a good deal of warmth for Titley and frustration at the opportunities missed and the continuing ambivalence at the government’s willingness to make a public case for Europe.

Martin Kettle of the Guardian offered some sober pessimism not just about the BNP’s prospects in the June elections – and the shock BNP MEPs could deal to the body politic – and suggested the Labour government could retreat and trim further on Europe and social issues. This brought some sharp responses from the floor, including from some of Labour’s Euro candidates, that this would be the worst way to respond. But it had not been a course which Kettle advocated, but one which he feared could become a default response in the absence of a clear European argument.

Wayne David MP, another ex-EPLP leader and decidedly not speaking in his (Welsh Office) Ministerial capacity talked about the loss of the optimism felt in 1989: when Delors’ converted the labour movement to Europe and the Berlin Wall opened new possibilities. The unpopularity of Europe, not just in Britain, but across Europe meant leaving behind a Europe of ‘we know best’ to find a new vision relevant to voters’ experiences. This could not be the Europe of Treaty revisions and grand federalist schemes. It was possible, he argued, to combine a pragmatic common sense British sensibility to make a clear and confident case about why Europe made sense.

Mark Hendrick MP, speaking from the floor, was candid about the government’s failure to make the case for British engagement. A Euro referendum had been bottled when it could have been won; the political capital had been spent in Iraq. Westminster and Brussels remained different, disconnected political worlds.

Next Left’s intrepid blogger and PES President Poul Nyrup Rasmussen would have been pleased to hear party members calling for a greater politics of the European left – though Titley was candid about the difficulties of politicisation of European politics when the parliament is committed to building compromises to make progress.

The debate over-ran but there seemed a lot more to say. We will see if those attending want to develop the argument here on Next Left, and can help to answer the challenge of the agenda and arguments which those who believe in European engagement should make.

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