Let’s talk about EU policy, not a pointless neverendum

Those in Labour arguing for a referendum on EU membership risk undermining us when we need to answer tough questions, and are damaging our reputation abroad by calling our commitment to Europe into question.

European Commission President Barroso recently gave his annual State of the European Union address. He called on MEPs to make the case for a stronger Europe, encouraged the eurozone to press on towards a banking union, railed against unemployment, and urged the EU to fight for growth.

But instead of championing (or even criticising) these ideas, the only EU-related article in the Labour blogosphere came from Labour for a Referendum: ‘Labour needs a referendum on Europe, now more than ever’. Its arguments put polling over principle and short-term politics over serious policy.

The LFR article argued that an in-out referendum would help us win the 2015 general election (forgetting the European parliamentary elections in 2014, which will make the difference between a headstart and falling at the first hurdle), reconnect with our traditional working-class support, and, somehow, prevent leftwing Eurosceptics from forming their own UKIP while simultaneously securing Britain’s future in the EU.

In contrast, Progress, and British Influence, have led the way in the real discussions the we should be having in Europe. Are we ready for a banking union? Do we support deeper integration? How best to deliver the financial transaction tax?

The greatest criticism I hear of our party is that we ‘don’t have any policies’ and that people ‘don’t know what we stand for’. If we are to regain and strengthen our traditional working-class support, we have to show that we are we are ready and willing to fight for them on an EU level. An in-out EU referendum will take us, at best, back to square one, and we will be all the poorer in time and energy.

Over the last few years, I have campaigned with our European friends in elections in France, Spain, Italy, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia and, this week, in Germany. In all of these countries I have discussed and debated European policy. We never felt the need to discuss whether or not we should begin to discuss something.

That is the problem with our party, and more broadly our country, when it comes to Europe. Ever since 1945, we have ducked and dived and dithered over the big important questions in favour of tearing ourselves apart over the unimportant ones. Then, when others have made their decisions, we find ourselves scrambling to catch up and unhappy with the results. The Anglo-Saxon hare sleeps while the continental tortoise plods on.

I want people ‘to have a say’ on Europe – a real say. The choice I want to give voters in 2014 is not ‘in’ versus ‘out’; it will be a choice between measures that promote jobs and growth versus ones that promote austerity.

So here is the question we have to answer ourselves before we go to the country: is Labour ready to make the monumental European policy choices ahead, or will we shy away and let ourselves get bogged down a pointless internal debate about the neverendum?

This piece was written for and originally published by Progress. See here.

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