Open Europe has just returned from holding two fringe events at the Labour Party Conference (write ups of these to follow here), an occasion that can be a useful barometer for assessing opinion within the party.
Shadow Foreign Secretary Douglas Alexander used our joint event with BNE and CER to state that “there is almost total unanimity for Britain’s continued membership in the European Union.”
And, though Alexander made several valid points (including the Tories' poor handling of the announcement of the 2014 EU JHA block opt-out) it's clear that in large part, Europe simply remains a stick with which to beat the Tories. Shadow Cabinet Minister Jim Murphy’s suggestion that, “at some point, there will have to be a referendum on the EU” would seemingly fall into that category. Mr Murphy added "My preference would be an in-or-out referendum when the time comes” and that “almost everyone” in the Labour Party would campaign to stay in the EU, “because it is good for our economy and good for Britain”.
It must be extremely tempting for Labour to go for that in / out referendum and witness the Tories tearing themselves apart (or so the thinking goes). But a) that's hardly a noble motive for putting a hugely important issue to the people (Labour likes to talk about putting national interest before party) and b) it would be an absolutely massive gamble: if held now, the "in" side would almost certainly win, but in 2015-16, all kinds of unpredictable stuff could have happened in Europe that would change the equation. The dropping popularity of Hollande and Rajoy, just months after entering office, is a reminder that 'political honeymoons' are shortlived in European politics these days. Therefore, even calling a referendum right after being elected is no guarantee.
There was much talk of lost ‘influence’ at the conference but little of substance to suggest how Labour’s approach would be different to the current government on the fundamental issues such as the fiscal treaty (would the party opposed to 'mindless austerity' really want to sign a treaty enshrining the doctrine?), the EU budget (Labour recognise the need for reform as do the Lib Dems and the Conservatives), and banking union (Although it does not necessary like to admit it, a Labour government would need to go out to bat for the City in Europe).
However, encouragingly, there are some senior figures in the party who are willing to enter into a debate about the future of the EU. Shadow Treasury Minister Chris Leslie told our joint fringe meeting that the tensions between Eurozone-level decision making and national democracy were “at risk of undermining the European settlement.” He added that the Eurozone needed to find an answer to the question of how to “hold accountable those who make executive decisions in the Eurozone.”
He said that the continuing EU budget negotiations were the “next big diplomatic test” for the UK and that he was disappointed that there was not enough focus on the content of the budget – an argument we have made both of the CAP but also the Structural Funds, where a previous Labour Government policy would actually save the UK around £4bn over the budget period and better focus the remaining EU funds. In contrast, the current government has taken a somewhat less assertive approach (contrary to popular belief).