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.


Honeyball’s Weekly Round-Up

Labour Party

The French President, Francois Hollande gave a highly anticipated speech last week to the European Parliament in Strasbourg. He argued that the European Union should be more vocal in world conflicts and defended France’s decision to intervene in the Mali conflict calling it “a European fight for democracy.”

Without referring to the UK specifically he made it clear that he totally rejected any idea that any national Government could cherry pick EU policies. He said: “National governments should stop calling into question EU competencies at every step.”

He warned against it being a body which looks out only for self-interest and said the EU was in danger of becoming “a sum of nations where each looks for what is good for itself and only itself.”

He did agree however, that it was necessary to look at the European Unions ‘architecture.’ You can read a full report from European Voice here.

A deal was reached over the European Union’s budget last week and responding to the deal Douglas Alexander MP, Labour’s Shadow Foreign Secretary, said: “We welcome news that a deal has been reached. Failing to agree one could have seen next year’s budget go up automatically.

“Labour voted in November to give David Cameron a clear mandate to negotiate for a real terms cut, and so we welcome the reports indicating the policy we advocated has been agreed.

“It seemed at times that David Cameron was ready to throw in the towel and aim for a freeze, but today’s deal proves that a cut was worth voting for in Westminster and worth negotiating for in Brussels”.

You can read his quote in full here.

My analysis of Cameron’s speech

Labour Party

David Cameron excelled himself this morning with one of the worst cases of vague waffle I have ever heard from a national leader.

The fact of the matter is that Cameron’s top priority is to head off the unrelenting opposition to the EU coming from Eurosceptic MPs and Conservative grass-roots activists.

It strikes me as utterly bizarre that any Prime Minister can even think about holding a referendum in five or more years’ time, after a general election. Has Cameron even considered that the Tories may not win an outright majority in 2015? This pie-in-the-sky timetable is the strongest indication that Cameron is promising the referendum for Conservative Party management reasons and not the national interest.

Britain’s membership of the European Union is too important to trust to the vagaries of party advantage.

David Cameron’s “vision” for an EU where some of its workings have been “renegotiated” to make it better for Britain required a great deal of imagination to have any clue about what he meant in terms of concrete change. The only real issue he raised was the hours of junior hospital doctors.

Even I could sign up to the five principles outlined by the Prime Minister. I doubt if there is a person in the land who doesn’t want fairness, competitiveness, flexibility, subsidiarity and democratic accountability. It’s not difficult to come up with general ideas that appeal – the difficulty lies in translating them into meaningful action.

Few people would disagree that the EU needs reform. Most would like to know what such reform would actually entail. Yet Cameron said almost nothing about what exactly it is he wishes to re-negotiate. It was surprisingly empty and begged more questions that it has answered.

Cameron is treating Britain’s membership of the European Union as a blank sheet of paper which we can go back and negotiate from scratch. Judging by the interview given to Newsnight yesterday by Guy Verhofstadt MEP, a former Belgian Prime Minister who now leads the Liberal Group in the European Parliament, this will not be the case. David Cameron will, therefore, be faced with tricky negotiations and I, for one, will follow his performance very closely.

Returning to practical matters in the here and now, Shadow Foreign Secretary Douglas Alexander said today that Cameron’s speech has served to increase uncertainty and he fears it could increase economic instability. The promise of referendum on EU membership seven years from now can only be damaging from now onwards.

Cameron’s approach is weak and misguided. Even worse, he may not have achieved anything at all – the Eurosceptics may feel his speech did not provide enough while the rest of us may be put off by its generality and lack of content.

Cameron’s New Year’s Resolution

Labour Party

The New Year is a time for resolving to do the things you should have been doing or should have done in the previous year.  For David Cameron, that means making his position on Europe clear in a speech he intends to deliver in the Netherlands later this month.

Douglas Alexander pre-empted the speech in the New Statesman this week, asking Cameron to make a decision that is best for the United Kingdom and not his leadership. You can read it here.

As Douglas Alexander points out; “the timing and content of this speech have little to do with policy and everything to do with politics”.  Cameron has always been in a particularly tight spot when it comes to Europe; with coalition partners that are pro-EU, and his outward support for the UK’s continued membership; he has to contend with a large portion of his party who think of little else but an in/out referendum.

Douglas makes a strong case against a referendum in his article, the most important point being:

“Announcing an in/out referendum halfway through this parliament to take place more than halfway through the next, given the Conservatives’ hostility towards Europe, could risk up to seven years of economic uncertainty, threatening vital investment and effectively playing Roulette with the country’s economic future.”

In fact, Cameron’s own Foreign Secretary, William Hague, has stated in the House of Commons that “It would create additional economic uncertainty in this country at a difficult economic time.”

At this point it is unlikely that Cameron will announce an in/out referendum.  More likely it will be a statement of intent to repatriate a number of powers from the European Union.  I have said many times before that this idea is rather fantastical, as it would mean treaty renegotiations.  Eamon Gilmore, Ireland’s deputy prime minister, has stated recently that “We’re either a union or we’re not… The EU is not an à la carte menu”.

So when Cameron fails to get these powers back from Europe, as he no doubt will, he may find himself backed in to a corner with his party and forced to hold that in/out referendum.

The dangers of this have been pointed out by a number of business leaders who yesterday wrote a letter to the Financial Times stating that his current stance on Europe risked ‘destabalising the British economy’.  The letter is signed by businessmen including Sir Richard Branson, chairman of the Virgin Group, Sir Michael Rake of BT, Jan du Plessis of Rio Tinto and Malcolm Sweeting, the senior partner at Clifford Chance, a major law firm.

The letter states that:

“We must be very careful not to call for a wholesale renegotiation of our EU membership which would almost certainly be rejected.  To call for such a move in these circumstances would be to put our membership of the EU at risk and create damaging uncertainty for British business, which are the last things the Prime Minister would want to do.”

When everyone from the business world to people within your own Cabinet are telling you that the path you are on is folly, it might be time to take some notice and stand up to that part of your party leading you down this dangerous road.

This is a time of great change in the United Kingdom, Europe and the world.  The best position we could be in right now is within the EU.  Reforms are needed, but we can be part of making the union work better, but not if Cameron continues to alienate himself from the rest of the EU with unreasonable and impossible demands.

Cameron’s shilly-shallying on Europe is not good for the country

Labour Party

The Tories are well and truly getting themselves in a twist on the EU.Europe, as we all know, was always their Achilles heels, a fault line which is getting deeper by the day.

By wading into these turbulent waters, big beast Eurosceptic Dr Liam Fox has heightened their problems and shown us an even more divided party. But it’s not just the Conservative Party in the frame. Since they are the leading part of the Con-Dem Coalition Government, this is something which affects the British people as a whole.

In a speech given tellingly to the right-wing think tank, the Taxpayers’ Alliance, Dr Fox, according to ConservativeHome defied “the wisdom of the Conservative leadership by arguing that if we are not able to renegotiate significant powers back for Britain, we should leave the European Union”.   

It is, of course, bad enough that a former Cabinet Minister should attack his Party’s leadership in this way. It’s made even worse by David Cameron’s utter ineptness. Does he support a referendum or doesn’t her?  Liam Fox and 100 other Tory MPs think he doesn’t while others believe he might.

If it weren’t so serious, I would say that brewery and a lot to drink come to mind. Britain’s relationship with the European Union matters very much to our country. I can do no better than quote Shadow Foreign Secretary Douglas Alexander writing in the Guardian on Saturday: “My fear is that the shambles over the last few days reveals more about the prime minister’s weakness in the party than the strength of his convictions about Europe. Whatever your view on Britain’s relationship with the EU, we all want the government’s approach to an issue this significant to start from only one place: consideration of what is best for Britain. I regret that this prime minister seems to be more concerned with managing party interests than governing in the national interest when it comes to Europe.”

Our national interest is at the very minimum to have a clear and well thought out strategy for Europe. It does no harm to repeat that the EU single market is the UK’s largest trading bloc taking 40 per cent of our exports. This involves more than simply getting goods there. As Douglas Alexander said in the same article: “…the single market is not just about “free trade” as the Eurosceptics misleadingly imply. It’s about far more than that: removing barriers behind the borders – and that requires common rules with a commission and court to enforce them. And where we have shared goals – from tackling climate change to cross-border crime and human trafficking – in an era of billion-person countries and trillion-pound economies – we cannot afford to give up on ways that help amplify our voice and protect our interests.”

It beggars belief that the Prime Minister is playing party politics with such an important matter. The real problem is that Cameron has not really “detoxified” the Tory brand. He hasn’t had the courage to do what Neil Kinnock achieved for the Labour Party in the 1980s. The British Conservative Party now has more extremists than before the 2010 general election.

Cameron seems to think appeasing the Eurosceptics will get him off the hook. Such misplaced judgment defies all historical precedents. Cameron has isolated the UK by pulling out of the European People’s Party, the centre-right group which also happens to be the largest political group in the European Parliament. Having annoyed his natural allies, Cameron now thinks he can renegotiate Britain’s relationship with the EU. Total and utter pie in the sky for reasons explained in some detail in other posts on this blog, and rather pleasingly put forward by Andrew Neill on the BBC Sunday Politics programme.

Ed Miliband is to meet François Hollande

Labour Party

Ed Miliband is due to meet the French Socialist Presidential candidate François Hollande in London on Wednesday. Having suggested on this blog that Ed campaign for M. Hollande in the forthcoming Presidential elections in France, I am delighted that the two centre-left, dare I say, socialist leaders have agreed to meet.

I have picked up that the talks will focus on economic growth. With the EU and the UK in the grip of right-wing imposed austerity this, of course, very welcome. As I maintained in my earlier blogpost, if M. Hollande were to win, as the opinion polls are still predicting, France under a centre-left leader would be in a position to challenge the prevailing right-wing economic orthodoxy. This would, I believe, be of enormous benefit to Europe as a whole. It would also force David Cameron and George Osborne ton rethink their disastrous cuts agenda which is doing our country so much harm.

It is very heartening that M. Hollande is taking his meeting with Ed Miliband seriously. He is bringing with him his campaign manager, former French Foreign Minister Pierre Moscovici who also used to be an MEP, and Elisabeth Guigou, French Justice Minister from 1997-2000. On our side will be Ed Balls and Douglas Alexander, Shadow Chancellor and Foreign Secretary, plus the Europe Minister Emma Reynolds, who helpfully speaks French fluently.

In the context of how to pull Europe out of recession, the meeting is likely to look at Hollande’s idea of a contract between the generations, a concept not a million mikes away from Ed Miliband’s idea of a British Promise. Both leaders are comfortable discussing ideas and viewing the big picture.

Contact such as this with another centre-left European leader is immensely valuable. In the case of M. Hollande who remains the front-runner to become French President, it is completely the right thing to do. Hollande is apparently not meeting David Cameron. I wonder why not?

As Cameron looks to Norway he will see they are far more integrated with the EU than he likes to think

Labour Party

No-one was more delighted than me when David Cameron said at the Nordic-Baltic Summit earlier in the week that, “the evidence is that there is a positive link between women in leadership and business performance, so if we fail to unlock the potential of women in this labour market, we’re not only failing individuals, we’re failing our whole economy.”

It was, of course, Norway that first introduced quotas as long ago as 2003 decreeing that 40 per cent of directors of listed companies should be women. Iceland then followed with a target that 40 per cent of directors be women by 2013.

Meanwhile, in relation to our own country, a British government policy paper presented at the Nordic-Baltic summit estimated that as female entrepreneurship reached the same levels as in the United States, there would be 600,000 extra women-owned businesses contributing an extra £42 billion to the economy.

As we all know, the Scandinavian countries have excellent records on women and deserve full credit. Britain should definitely follow their example. As an active member of the group Women in Leadership, I commend David Cameron for his speech at the Nordic-Baltic summit. I, and many other women from across the political and social spectrum will, I know, now be monitoring this government to make sure Cameron’s promises are translated into action.  

Norway is a magnificent country which has much going for it, not the least of which is its enviable record on women. Many of those who are anti-EU quote Norway as the example the UK should follow, in that it is outside the EU and therefore, according to the logic of Tory MEP Daniel Hannan and his acolytes, free of “Brussels bureaucracy” with more home-grown democracy.

It has, for some, been all too easy to accept this argument. It is, however, fundamentally flawed.

A report recently commissioned under the chairmanship of Professor Fredrik Sejersted and published by the Norwegian government states, “we [Norway] are almost as deeply integrated as the UK.” Importantly, the report, covered by the BBC online, expresses concern at the political consequences of this state of affairs as Norway is bound, in practice, to adopt EU policies without voting rights. Professor Sejersted calls this “a great democratic deficit …. but this is a kind of national compromise since Norway decided it did not want to join the EU.”

It is worth noting that two-thirds of Norwegian private sector investment goes to Europe and that there have also been high inward flows of EU immigrants into Norway. These are two good reasons why Norway has felt the need to sign up three-quarters of the legislation coming from the European Union, a total of 6,000 legislative acts.

The overarching conclusion to be drawn from Professor Sejersted’s report is that in 2012 no modern democratic country can exist on its own, cut off from its neighbours. Yet this is the underlying demand coming from the 102 Tory Eurosceptic MPs who wrote to David Cameron on 6 February. Since their number included all the officers of the 1922 Committee – Graham Brady, Charles Walker, Mark Prichard and Brian Brinley – and former Cabinet Ministers John Redwood and Peter Lilley, the Norway lobby is obviously a strong one.

My view is that reverting to the status of Norway would be disastrous for the UK. Leaving aside the democratic deficit – that we would be signing up to EU legislation without any say over it – we need to develop a mature British patriotism for the 21st century. This is not about belly-aching about the reach of Brussels but much more, as Shadow Foreign Secretary Douglas Alexander wrote in the Guardian at the end of last year, about how we, Britain and Europe, engage with the rise of China and India.

The “veto” that never was and the ire of the Eurosceptics

Labour Party

Sometimes I almost feel sorry for David Cameron. He really seemed to believe that walking out of the Brussels summit in December would begin to end his EU troubles.

Far from it. As Shadow Foreign Secretary Douglas Alexander said in the Guardian this morning: “The unanswered question after this summit [the one which has just ended] remains what exactly David Cameron achieved by walking out of the EU negotiations last month? With the EU institutions now involved, it seems clear that all his earlier phantom veto achieved was to undermine British influence.”

The Brussels summit which ended yesterday endorsed the use of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) to enforce the “fiscal pact”. Britain reserved its position, along with the Czech Republic, the only other EU member state to do so.

This latest climb-down by the British Prime Minister makes it even clearer that David Cameron achieved absolutely nothing by walking out of the last Brussels summit. He did not “veto” the treaty; he quite simply did not sign up to it. A veto implies preventing or stopping something happening. Cameron did not achieve this. Rather he took himself and the UK away from the agreement. “Refusal to agree” or “abnegation of responsibility” would be better terms for David Cameron’s antics.

However, this is not the view of the feral Tory Eurosceptics.

Cameron’s personal woes are at home while our country’s are in the EU. Losing influence and being marginalised in Europe do not help the UK. Because of our geographical size and proud history, we should be a major player at the heart of Europe, leading the EU, one of the world’s major power blocs, in the direction which would be best for Britain.

Meanwhile, unable to perform in any credible way in the EU, David Cameron is facing a  Eurosceptic backlash in the House of Commons as well as searing criticism from his own MEPs.            

Speaking about Cameron’s volte-face on the use of the EU institutions to enforce the fiscal pact, Martin Callanan, Leader of the ECR Group, largely made up of British Tories, is quoted in the Guardian this morning as saying, “I blame a combination of appeasing Nick Clegg, who is desperate to sign up to anything the EU puts in front of him, and the practical reality that the pact is actually quite hard to prevent.”

Leading feral Eurosceptic backbencher Bernard Jenkin said, “The government cannot retreat from that [not agreeing to the treaty changes last month], or they will refuel demands for a referendum on the UK’s present terms of membership of the EU.”

So Cameron’s attempts to pacify his Eurosceptics at the expense of Britain being able to take its rightful place in the EU are failing miserably.

The embattled Mr Cameron is also facing criticism from the backbench mob for doing what Nick Clegg wants.

I always thought coalitions were about agreeing joint policies and taking them forward together. Not, it appears, in the modern Conservative Party who are behaving as if they won the last general election with an overall majority. They did not, and would do well to remember it.

Tom and Kerry

Labour Party

Tom Harris MP has had to pull out of my fringe meeting at Labour Party Conference – Blogging for Labour – How social media can drive a wedge into the Coalition at Manchester Central – Charter 1, at 6pm. Tom is a real star. He has arranged for Kerry McCarthy MP to take his place. Thank you Tom.

Kerry’s blog is “Shot from both Sides” and she was appointed Labour’s first Twitter tasr.

Kerry is a solictor and linguist whose first elected position was as a councillor on Luton Borough Council.

Kerry is a member of the Transport and General Workers Union, the Co-operative Party, the Fabian Society, the Howard League for Penal Reform, and the Labour Animal Welfare Society.

Kerry was elected MP for Bristol East in 2005. In April 2007 Kerry was appointed Parliamentary Private Secretary (PPS) to Rosie Winterton, Minister for Health Services, and helped her steer the Mental Health Bill through the Commons.  From 2007 – 2009, Kerry was the Parliamentary Private Secretary to Douglas Alexander, the Secretary of State for International Development.

In the June 2009 reshuffle she was made a Junior Whip.

Kerry was also Chair of the South West Group of Labour MPs, secretary of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Somaliland, a member of Labour’s National Policy Forum, and lead contact for the End Child Poverty campaign amongst Labour MPs in parliament.

Kerry’s main policy areas of interest are: the economy; tackling poverty; international aid and trade; transport; and crime and justice.

In May 2010 Kerry was made a Shadow Junior Minister in the Department of Work and Pensions, with responsibility for disability issues.

I am delighted Labour’s top blogging woman MP will join me later to talk about how we can use social media, thank you Kerry.