David Cameron’s wheeze to hold an in-out referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU in order to placate the Eurosceptics in his party has meant that the threat of Brexit following the vote on 23 June is a real one.
When Tony Blair led the Labour Party to victory in the 1997 general election, he did so pledging to put Labour at the heart of Europe, reversing the drift of the previous Conservative governments to an ever more negative attitude to the European project. The great initial goodwill that greeted Blair’s election in Europe – and not just on the socialist side – was dissipated, however, as the years went by and Britain came once again to seem semi-detached: in Europe but not truly of it, always opting out or half-hearted. Policy on Europe became hostage to domestic considerations – both short term tactical needs and the more intractable problem of deep-rooted British Euroscepticism which grew as the period went by. Successive European Parliament election campaigns were fought on domestic issues rather than arguing the case for the EU.
The failure of Labour to put a positive case for EU membership over many years is now coming home to roost. Unless Labour supporters can be persuaded to vote to remain in the EU, our future is likely to be very uncertain.
There are, without doubt, things to criticise in today’s EU, as indeed there are here at home. We need to remember that in contrast to the 1990s, Europe now has a majority of right wing governments and they are calling the tune. The European Parliament, too, is in the hands of the centre right. In Britain we have failed to vote for a majority of Labour MEPs since 1999 and today, UKIP have the largest number of UK MEPs. This simply must be changed if we want to pursue the kind of real reforms we would like to see such as stronger environmental policy, more justice for refugees, tougher controls on bankers and multinationals who do not pay their share of taxes, and yes, still, some more reforms of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). On a continent where its peoples have spent hundreds of years killing each other, the idea of being part of an organisation that guarantees the peace is surely worthy of our efforts to remain.
It is in our interest to remain in the EU for security and jobs, workers’ and consumer rights and environmental protection, not to forget research collaboration and funding for our universities. The Tories are drooling with anticipation at the prospect of the bonfire they would like to make of worker’s rights, which they categorise as ‘red tape’.
Labour IN, led by Alan Johnson, is working hard to put the Labour case to remain in the EU, but it needs support and funds.
Anita Pollack, former Labour MEP’s, new book ‘New Labour in Europe: Leadership and Lost Opportunities’ is published by John Harper Publishing. Her first book: “Wreckers or Builders? A History of Labour MEPs 1979 – 99” was published in 2009.