Why Europe? The left’s answer: Douglas Alexander’s speech to the Fabian European conference

Sofie Jenkinson

Despite the title of this particular conference, I don’t actually believe that Britain’s continued membership of the EU is just a Right/Left issue.

For me it’s also a Right/Wrong issue.

I say this because I believe that those opposed to our membership of the EU are not just on the wrong side of the political divide, but on the wrong side of history.

Let me explain:

If in the last century the case for Europe was one of peace and prosperity, the 21st Century case is one of power and influence.

In the past, if you wanted to see the foundations on which the case for Europe was built, you needed only to look to the war graves and memorials that were strewn across the continent.

For my father’s generation that was a matter of memory.

But for my son’s generation it is a matter of history.

So today, in arguing the case for Europe, we need to acknowledge that we live in an era of billion-person countries and trillion dollar economies, and so need to find ways to amplify our voice and multiply our power.

In that sense, the case for Britain’s continued membership of Europe is not a matter of outdated sentiment.

It is not even a matter of progressive ideology.

It is a matter of simple arithmetic.

Indeed, if mechanisms for cooperation at a European level did not exist today, I believe that theywould need to be invented.

Of course the deep ties between France and Germany, born from the conviction that they should never repeat the conflicts of the first half of the 20th Century means that the EU was, and remains,fundamental to the national purpose and psychology of both countries.

Britain also wants peace and security in Europe, but our experience of the last century was different, and so our approach to Europe is also different. It has always been more pragmatic than visionary. We want to be part of the EU because it works for us – both as a country, but also because it serves our interest as individuals.

That approach has been Labour’s starting point on Europe for many years now, and will continue to be.

But let me pause here for a moment.

Because I suspect that this will seem a convincing, but familiar, argument to many of you.

Many have made this case, probably more eloquently than I, and others will continue to do so on stages just like this one.

So today I want to try and make a different speech.

I want to set out a different case.

Not because I don’t believe that these are good arguments.

But because I think, like all of our politics, we have to start with where the public are and not just where we want them to be.

I believe the public mood has changed in recent years, and therefore so too must the case we make.

Let me explain why.

Few would deny that today’s political context is fundamentally different to the one that existed when the EU project was first conceived.

Indeed it is this understanding that explains why the justification shifted from peace and prosperity topower and influence.

But I want to make the case that today we find ourselves at a juncture, where once again our caseneeds to change and adapt – or otherwise risks drifting into irrelevance.

The political context in which we make the case for Britain in Europe today is different to the one that existed only a few years ago when Labour politicians in government – myself included – were tasked with articulating the case for membership.

Despite the difficulties and the setbacks, the broad trends of the post war decades in Britain weredefined by growing prosperity and rising living standards.

Today sees falling wages, rising prices and stagnating growth.

Only this week the Resolution Foundation published a report that made the case that average wages are not expected to rise in real terms until late 2014 after a period of stagnation and decline. Many people continue to work fewer hours than they would like, putting downward pressure on household incomes.

People in Britain today simply can’t take for granted the fact that their generation will inevitably do better than the last.

In the context of growing insecurity and increasing financial pressures, voters today have much less appetite for things that that may seem important to us as a nation, but ultimately feel remote from the concerns and fears they have as individuals.

So the case for Britain’s membership of the EU as it has been articulated until now – focused on securing power and influence as a nation – can feel remote at best and at times almost irrelevant to many British voters today.

To make the case for Britain’s continued membership in this changed and challenging political climate, we need to do so in a way that is rooted in the lived experience of people here in the UK.

For too long the focus has been on defending Britain’s place in Europe instead of explaining the positive impact that Europe has on many aspects of our lives.

Of course that doesn’t mean we relinquish the arguments about Europe being a mechanism for multiplying power and amplifying our influence.

Rather we have to recognise that these arguments will only get us so far.

They need to be supplemented with a new narrative which reflects the public’s priorities andconcerns, while articulating how Europe can help them realise their goals.

At a time of growing economic uncertainty and increasing personal financial strain, it should come as no surprise that I believe the economy must therefore be at the heart of our approach to Europe.

British jobs, exports and influence all benefit from Britain’s continued membership of the EU.

To contemplate shrinking our home market from 500 million consumers to just 60 million doesn’t make sense.

Only this week we heard President Obama putting a free trade agreement between the US and the EU at the top of his agenda.

And already the chorus of criticism from British business is growing following David Cameron’s recent speech, with senior British business figures, including Sir Richard Branson and Sir Martin Sorrel warning the Prime Minister’s approach risked creating “…damaging uncertainty for British business.”

The economic case for our continued membership is robust and is being increasingly forcefully made by a growing coalition of voices.

But it is not just exit that risks undermining economic stability and the prospects for growth.

The uncertainty created by David Cameron committing now to an in/out referendum half way through this Parliament to be held half way through the next risks creating instability and undermining investment, precisely at the time that the priority surely should be stability, investment and growth.

The truth is, his approach raises more questions than answers.

He can’t tell the public how he will vote.

He can’t be clear on what it is people would be choosing between staying in or out of.

And he can’t tell investors whether the UK will be part of the world’s largest single market in 4 years time.

Uncertainty is the enemy of investment – and David Cameron’s approach has created a lot more uncertainty.

And debate about the nature of our relationship with the EU in the future should not come at the expense of living standards today.

When it comes to our position on the recently agreed European Multi Annual Financial Framework -the EU Budget – our position was defined by the overriding need to not only work to ensure that the EU better reflects people’s concern, but also that it be publically seen to do so.

Because at a time when national governments are making difficult cut backs to spending on vital public services, it would not have been right for the EU budget to have continued to rise year-on-year.

The EU budget still needs substantial reform to make it more focused on growth and jobs, but the reduction agreed this month was an important step because Europe must learn to do better with less.

That is why we voted for a real terms cut last year and support the fact that this month that is what the EU agreed.

But today I want to make the case for moving this debate on.

I want to make the case that we need not just Europe as a framework to achieve growth and jobs – but also as a guardian of rights and protections.

Because in reality, the impact of the EU on people’s lived experience extends beyond simply the impact on creating jobs, but also into defining the type, quality and security of those jobs.

The single market has delivered more for Britain than simply the absence of tariffs and quotas at the border to trade.

It has delivered common regulatory standards covering consumer rights, environmental standards and health and safety rules without which the single market could not function.

The social market is a vehicle for protecting against exploitative working conditions, raising labour standards in a coordinated way and embedding worker’s rights within the very structures that encourage cooperation at a cross border level.

It is not a free-for-all for multinational companies, but a rules-based economic system that protects the vulnerable from the effects of unrestrained market forces.

So if Labour is to make the case for Europe founded on the impact it has on people’s lives, we have to make these protections for working people a key plank of our argument.

The task is now for us to show how, far from being abstract and remote pieces of European legislation, European social and employment laws are the basis for the much valued rights andprotections that help define the character of our society and the quality of life of our citizens.

It’s about practical things like four weeks paid leave, minimum maternity and paternity entitlements, protection against undercutting and mistreatment at work.

We must not only seek to defend Britain’s place in the EU using the language of structures, process or procedure.

Instead it is the language of paid holidays, equal pay and safety at work that will not only help us build the case, but will ultimately help us win the argument.

Let me be clear – this does not mean that Labour should defend every aspect of European social and employment law nor support its extension into new areas as a matter of principle.

It is true that Delors’s speech to the TUC in 1988 prompted then TUC Chairman to declare that after 10 years of Thatcherism, the EU was “the only card game in town”.

But after over a decade of a Labour government – that proved not to be the case.

After all it was a Labour government that introduced the national minimum wage; introduced the right to six weeks’ paid holiday; introduced the right to trade union representation; whistleblower legislation; upped maternity leave from 14 weeks to nine months; introduced paternity leave for the first time ever and got rid of discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation.

Delors’s speech to the 1988 TUC conference, placing a new social dimension at the heart of the argument for Europe, was the defining moment in reconnecting the Labour Party with the continent’s mainstream left.

Today the EU is one vehicle – but not the only route – to guaranteeing social protections and rights for British workers.

So we should be prepared to point out legislation that we judge does not meet our goals – like on the Working Time Directive when a Labour government negotiated and secured the British opt-out.

Nor does it mean that we will argue for the centralisation of social competences at an EU level.

We do not believe that all rights and protections need to be guaranteed or set by the EU.

In a diverse union of 27, the principle of subsidiary – including in social protections – is crucial.

But it does mean that where European social protections help working people here in the UK, we should be robust in our defence of these protections.

Because we believe that a collective guarantee of the minimum standards that should be expected of life at work, agreed at a European level though collective decision making, has been a necessary component of the single market.

Indeed this approach is a necessary response to the wrenching social impacts of dramatic economic change that flow from increased economic openness and competition at an EU and global level.

For the countries of the EU to overcome the challenge to its legitimacy that confronts us, responding to the unavoidable social consequences of these economic trends is vital.

And let’s be clear, the Tories approach to social and employment rights in Europe is not simply driven by their narrow and outdated view of Britain’s national interest and ‘sovereignty’ – but also theirunreconstructed approach to markets and their impacts – and in turn to the kind of Britain they want to see.

David Cameron has long cited social and employment law as one of the areas where he wants to see the EU do less, and the UK potentially opt out.

But he has been characteristically coy about what the implications of this would be for British jobs, British employees and British companies.

He won’t say – should this opt out be achieved – that equivalent domestic legislation will be introduced immediately to ensure that standards don’t change.

Indeed even after David Cameron’s recent speech, the Conservative’s remain purposefully vague.

The words ‘employment law’ didn’t feature once.

The word ‘repatriation’ wasn’t even mentioned.

And he didn’t even utter the term ‘opt-out’.

The truth is, that despite David Cameron’s obscurity, for many within the Tory party, what motivates them when it comes to Europe is to bring powers home in order to take protections away.

For them, vital protections are seen simply as an unnecessary burden on business that should be scrapped in pursuit of victory in the global race.

You don’t need to peer into a crystal ball to know what they are trying to do.

You only need to read the book – or in this case, the Beecroft Report:

Reducing the rights of staff in small companies;

Abolishing unfair dismissal;

And finding ways of making it easier to fire people.

This is what Beecroft calls a ‘price worth paying’. And for many Conservatives, this is the reality behind the rhetoric of repatriation.

So my case today is this:

The Tories approach to Europe today doesn’t just risk jeopardising our place in the world, our voice on the international stage and the prospects for growth in our economy.

It also risks unravelling the fabric of rights and protections that are such a crucial part of what defines the standards and quality of life that so many of our constituents today depend on.

The irony is that those who say they want the EU to “go back” to a free trade zone, seem to ignore the fact that the Single Market they yearn for is only sustained by the supranational institutions that they detest.

That is a point exposed only this week in relation to the Horse meat scandal. Irony left the buildingwhen Owen Patterson was forced to scurry back to Brussels in order to demand tighter EU regulation – in an acknowledgement that, in an open and free market, effective EU legislation is precisely the vehicle for protecting British consumers.

The lesson of the last decades is that without public legitimacy, the future of the EU will always feel precarious.

And to ensure solid foundations for Britain’s place in Europe, we must seek to make the case through reflecting the public’s priorities and concerns; decent jobs and rising prosperity.

For Labour, unlike some Conservatives, being pro-reform is not a proxy for being anti-Europe.

Indeed, for Labour, the reform of Europe should not be seen a question mark over our commitment to Britain’s future within Europe.

Instead it is not just the safest ground, but also the most solid foundation, on which a positive case about Britain’s membership of the EU can be made – and the concerns of the public addressed.

That is why Labour will continue to make the case for Britain’s place in Europe – but also for reform within Europe.

This cannot be an argument made simply on the pages of national newspaper editorials.

It is an argument intertwined with the daily concerns of the British public.

It is an argument that can and must be won.

And now is the time for Labour to make that case anew.

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