The EU needs a new emotional narrative that resonates with 500 million Europeans; a re-launch comparable to Miliband’s own reworking of the Labour Party in Disraeli’s ‘One Nation’ colours – it needs a ‘One Europe’ narrative – argues Dr Nathaniel Copsey
Ed Miliband’s long-awaited Europe speech was a wasted opportunity. Despite Lord Mandelson’s talk of bravery and sound judgement in setting out a future British Labour government’s stall on a referendum – which we learned was possible, yet unlikely in the next parliament – in reality all Miliband did was to restate the broad lines of Labour’s long-standing, increasingly moth-eaten European policy.
And what was particularly striking, for all United Kingdom Prime Minister David Cameron’s robust criticism of Miliband’s “confusion” on Europe was that, with just one or two alterations, this speech could have been given by the PM himself. In mirroring Cameron’s own landmark 2013 Europe speech, Miliband attempted to please all parties. Yet no one will be truly satisfied with what he has said. This is all the more disappointing because Labour’s European policy, which has been handed down more or less in tact from the Tony Blair years, is in desperate need of an overhaul.
In pandering to the Eurosceptic minority, Miliband recited several of the foolish arguments that misinform Britain’s debate on European Union membership. Putting aside the nasty quarrels about immigrants and access to benefits, let us have a look at just two. First, he called for greater powers of scrutiny for national parliaments over EU affairs.
This is fine, in theory, were it not for the fact that most legislatures including Britain’s make scant use of their existing powers to hold the EU to account under the Lisbon Treaty. The European Commission seldom receives more than a handful of reactions to policy proposals from the EU’s 28 national parliaments. The apathy of MPs to the tedious, if vital, details of proposed EU legislation is notorious in all member states – with the partial exception of the German Bundestag. What makes Miliband think that new powers would be used – or rather, not used – any differently?
Second, Labour’s leader was careful to name-check the area the British love to hate: the Common Agricultural Policy, which is the stuff of Eurosceptics’ nightmares. He is in favour of reform. But here’s the thing: agriculture is no longer the bloated behemoth of European spending that it was. Even more importantly, the union provides no greater level of farm subsidy than most other Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development countries – indeed subsidies are lower than elsewhere – including Norway, Switzerland, Japan and many others.What does this tell us? Little that we did not already know but it underlines the sad truth that the UK’s debate on Europe has become increasingly irrational – and the Labour party is not immune from contamination.
Miliband called for a reformed EU. This again is the shared viewpoint of all British political parties. Yet not one of them will say what a reformed Europe should look like, nor how it could be achieved in cooperation with our European partners. Vague sentiments were expressed on the desirability of a new EU energy policy and the completion of the single market in services. Yet these are old, careworn policy objectives handed down from Blair and Brown. And without a plan to engage our European partners, it is hard to see why Miliband is likely to be any more successful than his predecessors in achieving these objectives.
By failing to rethink European policy, Miliband is guilty of a worse crime: he is overlooking the real challenges that the UK and Europe face and should tackle jointly. The EU desperately needs a project for integration that is based on something more than freeing markets. Europe needs a new narrative; an emotional narrative that resonates with 500 million Europeans; a re-launch comparable to Miliband’s own reworking of the Labour Party in Disraeli’s ‘One Nation’ colours. We need a ‘One Europe’ narrative.
In terms of substance, there is a need to re-orientate European policy towards long-term investments in green technology, research and development and in some cases infrastructure that national governments with their eyes firmly on the short-term electoral cycle, struggle to make. Europe has experienced a catastrophic rise in wealth and income inequalities across the whole continent that undermines social cohesion and blights lives. Our experiences of the Great Recession and the eurozone crisis show that supranational politics is ripe for change. And social democratic parties, like Labour, should be working out what can be done in partnership with our continental friends.
Miliband has shown his courage, his daring and his intellect in rethinking British social democracy. Yet this exercise should not be carried out in splendid isolation from the European mainstream. The politics of One Nation should not equate to a Little England mentality. It is now time for Miliband to turn his attentions to rethinking and rebuilding the EU in a way that matches his principles and those of his party. Yet his speech showed that for now he is content to be led, rather than to lead on Europe. It is time for the Labour Party to show courage on Europe – and to make real a case for reform.
Dr Nathaniel Copsey is head of politics and international relations at Aston University in the United Kingdom. He is also the author of Rethinking the European Union, which is due to be published later this year