We are witnessing the most significant decline in British influence in Europe for a generation

Labour Party

Today, our Shadow Foreign Secretary, Douglas Alexander, will tell the Parti Socialiste, our sister party in France, that over the period of this Conservative-Liberal Democrat government, we have witnessed “the most significant decline in British influence in Europe for a generation”.

He stressed that “no country that seeks to play a leading part in the modern world could contemplate walking away from the world’s largest single market, or to cut itself off from some of its closest allies”. He will also say that “our place at Europe’s top table has made the UK stronger, more secure, and more prosperous”, and that “Labour believes that the UK will stand taller in Washington, Beijing, Moscow and Delhi – when we stand firmly at the heart of the EU”.

This is exactly the kind of engagement the UK really needs in Brussels, not the kind of intransigence that has caused grumblings of discontent from our European partners. Continued opt-outs from cross-border criminal prosecutions and investigations, opposing capping banker’s bonuses, failing to condemn rape in marriage, have made even the normally stoic Angela Merkel despair of David Cameron. We need instead a government with a policy to be an integral part of the European Union, to represent the UK’s best interests not by simply throwing the toys out of the pram when a proposal is made and refusing to play, but constructively negotiating to find a better solution for everyone.

The Labour Party has a clear plan to review, repair and reset our relations with our neighbours. We must take our advice from those in the field; the ambassadors, experts and civil servants, and not be held hostage by the irrational ideologies of a Eurosceptic fringe in the Conservative Party and UKIP.

 

Weekly Round-up

Labour Party

The Labour Party issued a statement last week clarifying its position on the ex-Prime Minister of Luxembourg, Jean-Claude Juncker’s, bid for President of the European Commission.

The party said, in a statement: “The nominee for European Commission President is ultimately a decision for the European Council, including David Cameron.

“Labour will not support Jean-Claude Juncker as a candidate for President of the European Commission. Should Mr Juncker be put before the European Parliament, Labour MEPs would vote against him.

“The message from the European elections was clear – that we need reform in Europe. We need reform so we can promote jobs and growth.

“Mr Juncker’s record shows he would make these reforms more difficult.”

It was also reported that German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, initially favoured Christine Lagarde, head of the International Monetry Fund (IMF) for the Comission President position. It is understood she broached the subject in a private conversation with French President, Francois Hollande. However, it is unlikely Lagarde will receive the support from her own country, and therefore be in the running, as Hollande is reluctant for France to lose its top post at the IMF. So Merkel has given her support to Juncker as I wrote on my blog last week.

Meanwhile, as the European Parliament re-assembles following the European elections, Cameron faces fresh tensions with Angela Merkel after news surfaced that his group, the ECR, which he formed in 2009, narrowly voted to accept Germany’s anti-euro AfD party, the fuer Deutschland into its bloc.

Reuters revealed: “The tally of the secret ballot was not released but members said it was 29 votes for, 26 against. Two members of Cameron’s Conservatives defied his call to vote against AFD, sources said. Had they obeyed, the German party would have been rejected.”

The Tories were forced to seek support and invite interest from extreme right parties because, as I revealed on my own blog last week, they had been struggling to get support from centre right parties who joined the Tories main rival the EPP.

However, despite now being a relatively large group within the European Parliament, Cameron is now in an embarrassing position as Merkal’s CDU party is a key player in the rival EPP bloc.

Cameron needs Merkel as an ally in order to secure an acceptable candidate as president of the European Commission.

David Cameron is no John Major. Britain’s reputation is not safe in his hands

Labour Party

It has come to my attention that the European Council of Ministers has decided to support Jean-Claude Junker as President of the European Commission.

David Cameron has therefore comprehensively failed in his attempts to stop Junker. While I accept that overturning the Junker bandwagon was never going to be easy, we shouldn’t gloss over just how instrumental Cameron was in creating the pro-Junker momentum in the first place.

Frightened out of his wits by UKIP’s strong showing in the European elections, not to mention his obstreperous back-benchers, Cameron came to the view that the arch-federalist Junker was not a good person to head up one of the three European institutions.

Given that under the Lisbon treaty, the European Parliament was to have a say in who would be President of the European Commission, campaigning against Jean-Claude Junker, the candidate of the centre-right European People’s Party Group (EPP), was never going to be easy.

Two things made Cameron’s self-proclaimed crusade even more difficult. As the largest political group in the European Parliament, the EPP has taken upon itself to claim that it, as the largest Group, makes the nomination for Commission President on behalf of the European Parliament. Secondly, and perhaps of more significance in Cameron’s world, is the fact that the Tories in the European Parliament withdrew from the EPP five years ago.

Now that the British Conservatives are not in the mainstream centre-right group, not only has their influence diminished, but they have also alienated European leaders whose support they may have needed to stop Junker. Chief among these is Angela Merkel who was very unhappy when the Tories formed the European Conservative and Reformist (ECR) Group in 2009. She is now even more angry because the Conservatives in the European Parliament have, within the last few days, allied with the Alternative for Deutschland, who are more or less the German equivalent of UKIP. The Tories went down that route because, needing to reconstitute the ECR for this parliamentary mandate, they were obliged to meet the European Parliament rules which state that to form a political group there must be 25 MEPs from seven countries.

Clearly it is rather foolish to upset Mrs Merkel, who in reasonable circumstances would be a Cameron ally. Cameron himself then went on to alienate almost the whole European Council when he threatened that the UK would leave the EU if a federalist became the head of the Commission. Subsequent Cameron interventions proved no more subtle or adept.

Responding to reports that Mr Cameron had warned Britain could leave the EU over Mr Juncker’s appointment, Mrs Merkel is quoted in yesterday’s Daily Telegraph as stating: “I made myself clear by saying that I am for Jean-Claude Juncker. But when I made that statement in Germany I also made the point that we act in a European spirit. We always do that. Otherwise we can’t arrive at a compromise. We cannot just consign to the back-burner the question of European spirit. Threats are not part and parcel of that spirit, that’s not how we usually proceed.”

Given that Mrs Merkel started the discussions on the European Commission by not being particularly pro-Junker, David Cameron has scored a spectacular own-goal. Step forward the Prime Minister who snatched defeat from the jaws of what could possibly have been a victory.

I, and most of my Labour MEP colleagues, share the concerns that the EU is remote. Many of us would not call ourselves federalists and would not support the federalist, integrated concept of Europe against the looser idea of nation states working together as analysed by Daniel Finkelstein in the Times today. But we all recognise that if you want your view to prevail in Europe you have to negotiate skillfully, taking account of the sensibilities of those who have power.

David Cameron is obviously no John Major who successfully negotiated Britain’s opt out from the Euro in the teeth of huge opposition. Cameron instead seems to be trying to ape Margaret Thatcher’s famous hand bagging strategy. Thatcher won the British rebate over 30 years ago. The EU and the zeitgeist are very different now. All David Cameron has managed to do is let the side down.

Sky’s knife-edge poll shows people want a reformed EU but repatriation of powers still remains impossible

Labour Party

Fifty-one per cent would vote to leave the European Union while 49 per cent prefer the status quo. Today’s poll broadcast by Sky News must give us all pause for thought.

 That being said, the results of the survey come with a significant health warning from Survation, the company who carried out the work, who state:

“A great deal of this opinion, however, is subject to change. 61% of ‘OUT’ voters would reconsider if certain key policy areas were renegotiated for the UK. Meanwhile 80% of current ‘IN’ voters would consider leaving if certain aspects of potential future EU integration were forced on the UK, being made to join the Euro chief among them.”

“Part of the uncertainty almost certainly stems from a lack of awareness of the EU and what exactly it means for the UK. Only 17% and 13% of respondents recognised a picture of the European Commission President José Manuel Barroso and European Council President Herman Van Rompuy respectively, compared to 71% who recognised German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Clearly awareness of the EU’s institutions is very low in the UK, when compared with awareness of the politics of other prominent European countries.”

“Similarly only 37% of respondents correctly guessed from 6 options that there were 27 countries in the EU, which suggests only around 25%, actually knew the correct response rather than guessing. 12% of respondents thought that there were as many as 36 countries in the EU. Meanwhile, of people who were not sure how they would vote in a referendum, the most common reason given was that they were “not sure what an ‘out’ vote would actually mean for the UK in terms of our new relationship with Europe”.

The EU debate more than almost anything else I have encountered over many years of political activism suffers from lack of clarity and lack of knowledge. For instance, voters do not really know what powers David Cameron seeks to repatriate. Even the debate on the 130 odd justice and home affairs measures which led the headlines not so long ago seems to have now disappeared into the long grass, possibly a deliberate ploy by Home Secretary Theresa May.

David Cameron is tellingly very quiet on other repatriation possibilities, mainly because they are just that – possibilities. As regular readers of this blog will know, I have long believed that unilateral repatriation is a complete non-starter. Why on earth would the 26 other EU member states agree to something demanded by only one of their number? 26:1 seems to me improbably long odds.

However, we should not rule out meaningful reform of the EU and its institutions. Reform from the inside is the only way Britain can go, though I concede that progress is often painfully slow. However, change does happen. The Common Fisheries Policy has been amended to do away with the ludicrous demand that certain fish be discarded and thrown back into the sea. As far as the European Parliament is concerned, we now have powers to co-legislate along with the EU member states. There is a long list of treaties from Maastrich to Lisbon which have amended the way the EU operates. This is how reform will happen, not by David Cameron having a hissy fit and taking his bat home, and we need to be there to protect our national interest.

The Labour Party is committed to a hard headed and patriotic case for EU reform. First out of the starting blocks will be a call for restraint and reform of the EU budget together with measures to stimulate growth and jobs across the continent. To this end Labour will look for agreement to appoint an EU Commissioner for Growth.

Since immigration is the number one public concern regarding the European Union, Labour will put in train talks to reform the transitional arrangements setting the terms for immigration from the new member states while at the same time seeking to reform the payment of family related benefits to EU migrants. There will also be a demand that the EU collect data on EU migration flows.

And Labour will also work to abolish the Strasbourg circus, whereby MEPs traipse to the Alsatian capital twelve times a year amid much expense and disruption.

The Survation survey shows an extremely low level of knowledge about the EU across the population of the United Kingdom. I passionately believe we as a nation need to address this. Ignorance is never blissful and, whatever your point of view on the EU, I do not believe anyone can defend the current situation whereby people don’t have the tools to actually know what is happening in an institution this country has belonged to for 40 years.

Honeyball’s Weekly Round-Up

Labour Party

Stars of the theatre penned an open letter to culture minister, Ed Vaizey, last week following the publication of a report which revealed what damaging cuts are doing to British theatre. They urged him to “take seriously” the damage these cuts are causing to London’s important theatre heritage.

They said, and I agree, that new playwrights must be supported, nurtured and taken seriously; if they aren’t then British output will undoubtedly suffer in a short period of time.

The letter was in response to a report called In Battalions, published in February which showed how that theatre and the arts have been hurt by aggressive cuts as well as local authority arts grants which have also been cut.

Vaizey said he had no immediate comment. He will, he promised, respond formally. You can read more on this here.

David Cameron and his family visited Angela Merkel last weekend at the German Chancellor’s guest residence, Schloss Meseberg.

They discussed the need for reform of the single market and both reportedly called for, “urgent action to make the European Union more competitive and flexible.” Downing Street reported that Cameron set out his plans for the future with Europe, yet there was no indication how this was received. It’s well documented that she is concerned about his plans for a referendum, but we have no firm knowledge of how this part of the discussion progressed.

What remains clear is that the German Chancellor is anxious that the UK remains at the heart of Europe. Merkel also urged Cameron to tackle tax evasion and tax avoidance schemes and the two agreed to show ‘global leadership’ on the issue.  Read in full here.

Timed to coincide with Cameron’s visit, the euro sceptics in the Conservative party said they would be open to compromise on reforms, said leading member of the Fresh Start Campaign, Andrea Leadsom MP. Leadsom changed her tone somewhat from earlier statements and has toned down her firm stance. Still the headache for Cameron remains and he’s yet to heal the rift within his own party on the issue of Europe. You can read more on this here.

“I’m lucky to be alive” said Andrew Marr as he made his first appearance back on his own show since his stroke four months ago. He received many good wishes following his short appearance in which he explained he is still undergoing rigorous physiotherapy treatment and he will return to our screens in the near future. I would also like to wish him well and look forward to seeing him returning to our screens shortly. You can see his short interview here.

Repatriation of powers really is smoke and mirrors

Labour Party

France and Germany have refused to participate in Prime Minister David Cameron’s much-vaunted examination of whether some EU powers should be returned to member states.

Reported in the Financial Times on 2 April, this extremely significant development has unfortunately received little attention in the British media. Since the story broke before the Thatcher demise, there was no excuse for ignoring such important news.

David Cameron’s flagship policy is now in tatters, as predicted many times on this blog. I first mentioned the impossibility of repatriation of powers as long ago as March 2010, before Cameron achieved the highest office. It was blindingly obvious to those of us engaged in European politics that there would never be the agreement required from the 26 other EU member states for repatriation to happen.

According to the FT, Paris and Berlin consulted with one another before concluding that the exercise known as the “balance of competences” was about serving Britain’s domestic political interests and not an EU issue as such. The two countries took this view even though the British government sent letters to each of the 26 other EU countries explaining the approach would be even-handed.

Cameron, of course, wants to use the results of the balance of competences review to renegotiate the terms of Britain’s membership of the European Union. Now that France and Germany have refused to participate in Cameron’s little scheme, renegotiation looks less and less likely. The Franco-German axis seems to be at one on this. The previous position where Hollande was against what he called “cherry picking” , (ie the UK keeping what it wanted such as the single market while opting out of European social legislation) while Merkel seemed to be more sympathetic to the UK position has obviously hardened into that of opposition to Cameron’s impossible policy.

Indeed, the FT was quite clear that most EU governments have indicated extreme reluctance to re-open the EU treaties. It is, moreover, unclear whether Cameron has enough political sympathy among his EU partners to engineer a one-off deal for Britain.

So it’s all ending in tears for Cameron and his side-kick William Hague. Fortunately for Mr Cameron and the Con-Dem government the end of one of the major promises in the Conservative manifesto for the 2010 general election has gone virtually unnoticed. Shame on all those who seek to cover up Tory incompetence and their lack of understanding on EU and international matters.

Marginalised Britain will one day count the cost of the lost Euro opportunity

Labour Party

First things first, amongst all those many others may I wish Prince Philip a speedy recovery. He has been a tower of strength over the last 60 years and has made a contribution beyond compare to the Queen herself and the monarchy as an institution.

Nevertheless, the Diamond Jubilee celebrations can only distance the rest of the world to a limited extent. While we have been enjoying our good fortune, the Eurozone leaders have been slowly forming a reaction to the sovereign debt crisis, specifically the banking crisis in Spain.

According to the Guardian today, the recently elected French socialist government represented in this instance by Finance Minister Pierre Moscovici and the European Commission led by President Jose Manuel Barroso have just given strong backing for a new Eurozone “banking union”. Crucially, the plan could see vast national debt and banking liabilities pooled and then backed by the financial strength of Germany in return for Eurozone governments surrendering sovereignty over their budgets and fiscal policies to a central Eurozone authority.

This is heady stuff indeed, and good news for the European single currency. Finding a way through the crisis in the Eurozone countries is also good news for the UK. Probably the only thing on which I agree with David Cameron is that it is in Britain’s interests to have a stable Euro.

However, it is also very bad news for Britain. Yet again we are outside major European developments. This may not be harmful in the short-term, but will be damaging for the UK in the longer term. 

The European Council president, the President of the European Commission, the President of the European Central Bank and the head of the Eurogroup of 17 finance ministers have apparently been charged with drafting the proposals for a deeper Eurozone fiscal union, to be presented to an EU summit at the end of the month.

The European Commission and France are piling pressure on Germany to line up behind the proposal. Angela Merkel would need to take it to the German parliament for agreement.

The international financier George Soros is on record as saying: “The likelihood is that the euro will survive because a breakup would be devastating not only for the periphery but also forGermany.Germanyis likely to do what is necessary to preserve the Euro…”

Soros continued with these prophetic words, “”That would result in a Eurozone dominated by Germany in which the divergence between the creditor and debtor countries would continue to widen and the periphery would turn into permanently depressed areas in need of constant transfer of payments.”

Everything appears to be coming together -France and the European Commission working together, plus tentative but seemingly real acceptance of their proposals by the European Council, the European Central Bank and the Eurozone countries. Although it’s by no means all set to go, it does look as if the 17 Eurozone countries are coming closer together and accepting the need for a central Eurozone authority look at budgets and fiscal policies.

Britain as ever is not part of what promises to be the most important European project since the formation of the Common Market. Unfortunately 50 years or so later, we still don’t get it. Europe is where the future lies. If Britain has any hope of being more than a bit player outside our own shores, we have to be a leader in the European Union. Today that means being up there with France and Germany in the Euro. Very unfortunately we did not join, and this blog post explains just how serious a missed opportunity this will turn out to be.

To add salt to the wounds, if Britain had joined the Euro, there is little doubt we would have been at the top table with France and Germany. Yes, we would have suffered from the current crisis in the Eurozone countries, but thanks to dogmatic Tory Chancellor George Osborne and Prime Minister Cameron we are suffering a double dip recession anyway, even outside the single currency. The Euro was always a political as well as an economic project and the UK has comprehensively failed to grasp the political opportunity.

Honeyball’s Weekly Round-Up

Labour Party

The week saw several high profile meetings between heads of state, starting with François Hollande’s first encounter with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, then building up to the G8, held at Camp David.

In the Observer Andrew Rawnsley asked us to stop “being beastly to Germans”, as Noel Coward put it.  I can’t say I have much sympathy for Merkel, despite having to watch David Cameron celebrate as Chelsea beat her team Bayern Munich in the Champions League final on Saturday.  It is true though that, with Hollande as France’s new president, Merkel is looking very low on allies among her fellow heads of state.

As Rawnsley says in his article; ‘The American Democrat, British Conservative and French Socialist may not agree on much else, but on this, at least, they are together. It is one second to midnight in the eurozone because a recalcitrant and miserly Germany has refused to step up to its historic responsibility to do what is necessary to save the single currency. If the eurozone implodes, and carries away the global economy with it, the buck will stop in Berlin.’

I think it’s fair to say that that Germany does deserve a big helping of blame for the current state of the eurozone.  Germanyhas repeatedly failed to offer leadership that rises to the scale of the present crisis. When Germanyhas led, it has not always been in a well-judged direction. The austerity programme imposed on the Greeks as the price for continued membership of the euro was too draconian to be implemented in a democracy. The have duly revolted.

So now Obama, Hollande and Cameron get to lay the blame for the current situation at Merkel’s feet.  I can see their point but the idea that Cameron gets to lecture another European leader about a growth agenda is very galling.  Merkel has overseen a German economy that had remained very healthy through out the crisis, whilst Cameron’s government has led us in to further recession.

With all this going on, apart from the Champions League Final, you can’t imagine that Cameron did much relaxing at Camp David, though he has been accused of “chillaxing” too much of weekend, and playing games on his iPad.  He has reacted by saying that he is driven, like Lady Thatcher, to achieve “massive radical and structural reforms”.  I think I prefer the idea of Cameron “chillaxing” than bringing about reforms similar to Tatcher.  I hear that a new version of Angry Birds has just come out, can someone please buy it for him?

The Eurozone avoids recession after the UK has sunk into double dip

Labour Party

The first meeting between President Hollande and Chancellor Merkel ended with a show of unity, at least on the surface, and a joint view that Greece should stay in the Euro. Meanwhile, as IMF head Christine Lagarde adds her voice to those who think Greece may have to leave the single currency, the Eurozone remains in crisis. The result of the next round of elections in Greece will be crucial for both that country and the Euro itself.

It is important at what may turn out to be the crossroads for the Eurozone that those who make these decisions do not get caught up in the general air of panic. There is no doubt the atmosphere in Europe is febrile, while the Merkel/Hollande meeting is being described as sober.

Yesterday I argued that Europe’s leaders must take on board the results of a recent poll in Germany as well as the national elections in France and Greece which produced winning results for candidates opposing austerity. Fortunately it looks as if this may be sinking in. Horst Seehofer, head of Germany’s CSU Party, sister party to Merkel’s CDU, is now calling for some element of growth.

Yet the Eurozone crisis and the problems in Greece are taking place at the same time as the Eurozone is keeping its head above water as far as recession is concerned. It was announced yesterday that the Eurozone had avoided recession thanks, interestingly, to stronger than expected German growth. Even France, sometimes seen as a problem due to its 35 hour week and generous pensions, recorded neither growth nor contraction.

This is not, of course, the case in the UK. At the end of April we were informed that the British economy had again sunk into recession putting us into the unenviable double-dip category. David Cameron, of course, blamed the Eurozone crisis. This claim looks less than tenable in the light of the Eurozone’s ability to avoid recession itself. In fact, according to a recent Sunday Times/YouGov poll 32% of people blame the return of recession on the Tory-led coalition.

Cameron and Osborne have, in fact, been fortunate that the Eurozone crisis has taken attention away from the British economy. Our economy is not doing at all well, as those who have lost their jobs and the young people who cannot find employment will tell you. In addition, the Bank of England has today revised its forecast for growth downwards. We are, in fact, seeing a re-run of the decimation of our society last seen under Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s.

The British people are, however, cottoning on to this. The local elections on 3 May showed beyond a shadow of doubt that they preferred Labour under Ed Miliband to this Tory-led coalition. Labour is on the way up, the Tories are going down and the beleaguered Liberal-Democrats seem headed for electoral wipe-out.

Our political leaders must take note of the people of Europe

Labour Party

France’s new President Francois Hollande is meeting Germany’s tried and tested Angela Merkel probably at this very minute.

The Euro, which will no doubt form the centre-piece of their deliberations, was, and remains, a brave venture, a departure from the politics of nation states and superpowers, globalisation and international money markets. For the first time ever a monetary project sought to bring together 17 different countries – a bold vision indeed. In this sense the Euro is the logical conclusion of setting up the European Union. Once the EU had established a political agreement, the Euro began the process of economic co-operation.

In this sense it is right to call the Euro a political project. And this is the very reason why Europe’s leaders from Angela Merkel to the European Commission do not want the Euro to fail. While I do not agree that if Greece were to leave the Euro this would mean the disintegration of the EU, its departure would seriously undermine the bold vision for Europe.

Mrs Merkel and the European Commission see this clearly, maybe even thinking that if Greece goes the whole Euro project will fail. Their response – severe austerity – is, however, beginning to look as if it will not work in the longer term.

Austerity should not continue for the simple reason that the people of Europe who have been to the polls recently have not supported Mrs Merkel’s point of view. Sunday’s elections in North Rhine Westphalia, Germany’s largest Land, saw Merkel’s CDU vote slump by eight per cent to an all-time low of 26%. The centre-left SDP social democrats did well boosting its share of the vote by five per cent to 39%. The liberal FDP also gained support.

While there may have been local factors at play in this internal German election, the result comes on top of Francois Hollande’s victory on a platform which included growth as well as austerity. We should also not lose sight of the result of the election in Greece. The Greek people have suffered more than any others in the EU and they are clearly saying no to austerity. The fact that the Greek election results have not delivered a government should not blind us to what the results are saying, which is a clear no to austerity.

The European Commission, Angela Merkel and the rest of Europe’s political leaders would do well to take on board that the many people in three EU member states have made their voices heard against strict austerity.

EU leaders are often quite rightly accused of being out of touch. The people have actually spoken over the past few months. The European Union – composed as it is of the world’s leading democracies – must take these voices on board. If they do not, the bold vision will flounder even further off course.

Meanwhile Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls hit the nail on the head regarding Britain’s role in the EU. According to today’s Guardian he told a Centre for European Reform seminar, “I don’t remember a time when British economic and political leaders in our country were less influential in debates which had more profound significance for jobs and growth in our economy.” Under the Tory-led coalition David Cameron and George Osborne are nowhere. The final irony is, if Greece were to leave the Euro, they would probably receive IMF money to which the UK had made a contribution. Standing aloof from the Euro does not let us off the hook in today’s integrated world.