Labour: engaged with Europe

Those who claim that Labour is shying away from discussing Europe in the European elections are wrong.

For a start, we’ve said very clearly that we will have no truck with the idea of leaving the EU, which would risk economic disaster. Ed Miliband was very clear on ITV News:

My priority is not exiting the European Union and indeed our future lies in the European Union, in a reformed European Union.

He embellished this on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, calling the threat of European withdrawal “the biggest threat to prosperity in this country“:

It’s the potential of a Conservative Government after the next election which has Britain turning inwards for two years, deciding whether to exit the European Union.

As Shadow Foreign Secretary Douglas Alexander said [link needs free registration]:

There is simply nothing splendid about isolation in the 21st century.

And Ed Balls chipped in saying that leaving the EU would be “reckless, foolish and deeply damaging“, but that the priorities of the EU need changing.

Brexit is just not a viable choice. The real debate is how we change, reform and improve the EU and its policies.

European reform is not a one-off event to be defined, started, negotiated and completed within a self-proclaimed deadline, as the Conservatives propose. Rather, the whole point of the EU is to form a non-stop negotiation among neighbouring countries on all kinds of subjects where our interdependence makes it necessary to work together.

Much of that is about the common rules for the common market, to make it work fairly, with a level playing field for firms and protection for consumers, for workers and for the environment.

It’s these protections that the Conservatives wish to remove — either for the EU as a whole or through a British opt-out. This would fragment the single market, trigger a race to the bottom as countries compete by lowering their standards, remove precious workers’ rights and hurt consumers and the environment.

Labour opposes such bogus reforms. Safeguards should not be removed, but improved. As our manifesto says:

We are proud that Labour in government signed up to the Social Chapter which introduced measures including:

  • minimum four weeks’ paid holiday;
  • a right to parental leave;
  • extended maternity leave;
  • a new right to request flexible working;
  • and the same protection for part-time workers as full-time workers.

Labour will fight to protect these rights.

And more can be done to ensure fair rules for the common market. Labour will continue to back reforms to big city bonuses by changing rules so bankers’ bonuses are properly controlled. Labour also believes that more can and should be done to tackle tax avoidance. Labour is backing efforts to prevent the erosion of tax bases and the shifting of profits, for example by increasing the transparency of what tax multinationals pay.

Nor does Labour want to end the important EU-level cooperation in the field of police and justice. This has led to the swift return to Britain of fugitives from justice (including 49 of the 65 most wanted fugitives on the former ‘Costa del Crime’). Yes, there are some problems with the system: so let’s address them, rather than opt out of this entire field, as the Tories want. And it’s not just about crime: cooperation in legal matters has also helps with such practical matters as cross-border wills, divorces, enforcement orders, inheritance and suchlike, hugely cutting the volume of bureaucracy involved.

Labour wants to tackle head-on the fears that many people have about migration into Britain. And the tools to do this are already available, in the hands of the government. Without needing any change to our agreements with European neighbours, we can require agencies to advertise jobs locally, not just abroad. We can crack down on firms that use foreign workers to undercut British ones by illegally paying less than the minimum wage, cutting corners on health and safety, or obliging workers to live in tied housing deducted from their pay packet. We can close loopholes in the benefits system that has allowed (a small minority of) migrants to abuse the system. We can lengthen qualification periods, and we can end the payment of benefits to people who don’t live in the UK. It’s important that the system works fairly and is seen to be working fairly.

But we will not end the system of reciprocity within the EU that allows free internal movement. After all, there are almost as many Brits living in other EU countries as there are people from other EU countries here. Nor should we forget that EU migrants in Britain, as a whole, pay far more in tax than they take in benefits and services.

The Labour leadership has spelled out clearly how it wants the EU to focus relentlessly on helping secure jobs and growth, with an EU Commissioner focused on this, and an independent audit of the impact of any new piece of EU legislation on growth. Using Europe’s collective clout in trade negotiations, removing the obstacles to the single European digital and services market, improving energy supplies and inter-connectedness of grids, can all help.

What does not help secure growth is the threat of British exit from the EU. This frightens away inward investment and internal investment alike. The Conservative Party, riven by its internal splits and weakness, has made it clear that its priority is a divisive and deeply damaging debate about whether or not to leave Europe. It’s a position forced upon the Prime Minister by his own rebellious backbenchers and his fear of attack from the right by UKIP. As Labour’s Shadow Foreign Secretary Douglas Alexander said, “the real tragedy is that David Cameron seems to be spending more time negotiating with his backbenchers than negotiating with other European leaders”.

On the EU budget, our manifesto states clearly:

The budget should focus on those items where spending at an EU level can save money at the national level, and resources should be shifted from areas such as the Common Agricultural Policy and put into areas of more productive economic development, such as research and development for new technologies and industries.

We seem to be the only party with a message not just on the level of EU spending, but on its content.

Labour is also anxious to reassure those who fear that the EU operates without due accountability or democratic control. This starts at home, with better scrutiny over our own ministers on what they agree to in Brussels. Labour has suggested a range of reforms to increase the House of Commons influence over EU decision making from the reinstatement of allocated debates before critical EU Council meetings, to a dedicated EU Select Committee.

Speak to any British business looking to engage in how Europe works and they will all tell you they need MEPs engaged in the detail of delivering the reforms Europe needs. From our financial services, to our pharmaceutical industries, from our universities, to our manufacturers and they will all tell you Britain needs MEPs that are engaged, at the table and on the side of British families. That is another reason to vote for Labour MEPs, who get stuck in and do the job. Without a strong Labour voice in the EU we would not have successfully cracked down on the marketing of cigarettes to children, or demanded more openness about where our food has come from. Our MEPs are champions not just for Labour, but for Britain.

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