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Britain and Europe

By the strength of our common endeavour

2nd March 2016

The Labour party is squarely and unambiguously pro-European and will have an important role to play in the forthcoming referendum

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Richard Corbett
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After the seemingly endless media frenzy around the European council meeting and David Cameron’s deal, it seems that Britain’s EU conversation is finally moving onto more substantive issues.

That is good news – not least because there had been a danger of the debate settling on the rather eccentric question of whether Cameron’s deal was legally watertight. But that question is largely irrelevant, for two reasons. First, since there is political agreement from all 28 EU national leaders on a deal specifically intended to be compatible with the treaties, the prospect of a successful legal challenge is remote.

Second, and much more importantly, the upcoming referendum is not yes or no to Cameron’s reforms. It is a vote on the much bigger question of whether Britain should walk out of the European Union. Mind you, Cameron’s reforms may help persuade a few more in the divided Conservative party, and may reassure a segment of public opinion. But it is in any case in Britain’s vital interest to stay at the heart of the EU.

And that is why Labour has a vital role to play in the referendum campaign. Whatever we think of the balance of Cameron’s reforms – and they are mostly a mixture of trivial and useful, with a few bad ideas thrown into the mix – we are not forced, like the Tories, to try to defend the prime minister’s ill-advised approach to the whole issue, nor to try to hold together a badly divided party under pressure from hard-right Eurosceptics and its own backbenchers.

Labour is united: the party is squarely and unambiguously pro-European. Well over 200 Labour MPs, including the leader and his entire shadow cabinet, signed a declaration of support. And it is not just parliamentarians: ordinary members are overwhelmingly in agreement too. When Europe was debated on the floor of party conference in September, the result was unequivocal. Remarkably, the resolution mandating the party to campaign for continued EU membership passed unanimously, with not a single delegate from any section of the party speaking or voting against it.

As a result, Labour is now running its own pro-European campaign, Labour In For Britain, which launched earlier this year and is independent of the cross-party Stronger In campaign. And importantly, Labour’s support for UK membership of the European Union is not dependent on what Cameron has or has not achieved in his ‘renegotiations’.

Incidentally, on that front, Labour and the trade union movement have already had their first notable victory, though one that has gone almost unnoticed in the mainstream media. The social chapter, which enshrines workplace rights across the EU, has not been touched. Cameron did originally threaten to include these, but we successfully warned the government off a course of action which would have triggered a race to the bottom across Europe as well as risked popular support from the left back home.

Of course, the motivation to keep Britain in the EU unites people of many political persuasions (Greens, Liberal Democrats, Scottish National party, Plaid Cymru, many Conservatives and even, surprisingly, some from the UK Independence party). We all want to secure Britain’s place at the heart of an effective European Union. So we will continue to coordinate with the cross-party Stronger In campaign, and work with the many other organisations that are springing up independently: Universities for Europe, Scientists for Europe, Environmentalists for Europe and so on.

But, in the campaign that’s now underway, Labour has a distinctive message to give. It is no coincidence that most vociferous and active opponents of membership are to be found on the neoliberal right, who detest the fact that the single European market is a market with rules to protect consumers, workers, and the environment – rules that need improvement, but important rules nonetheless. Where the right wants to tear up these protections, Labour is faced with an opportunity to reassert the importance of fairness.

At the same time, there is a further reason why Labour strongly supports European-level cooperation, and it is a reason that even our pro-European colleagues in other parties do not share. We are democratic socialists. Our party’s constitution spells out our fundamental belief that “by the strength of our common endeavour we achieve more than we achieve alone”.

Labour has always been an outward-looking, internationally minded party. Turning our back on the cooperative structures we have built with our neighbours and allies would not only be a backward step for our economy, it would violate one of our most deeply held common beliefs.

Photo credit: Ian Forsyth – Stringer / Getty Images

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