As David Cameron prepares to give his much EU fêted speech this week, it is becoming increasingly clear that he will commit himself to some form of repatriation of powers. Poll after poll shows majorities for re-balancing Britain’s relationship with the EU to free ourselves from the “burden” and, in the Prime Minister’s words, “bossiness” of the EU. The expected targets for this right-wing repatriation are employment and social policy, financial services regulation, justice and policing measures, consumer protection and possibly aspects of environmental protection legislation.
If this was the Tories’ domestic political agenda the Left would be screaming to high heaven that the nasty party are back. So where are they in opposing repatriation? Well, pretty much nowhere.
Spats over sovereignty have masked what are quite simple left/right EU issues, and progressives have been cowed from making their arguments. Ed Milliband and Douglas Alexander limply reiterate their position that Cameron is ‘sleepwalking Britain to an exit’, which is remarkable given that Labour sleepwalked their way to voting with Tory rebels on the Commons EU budget vote. To his credit, Nick Clegg has publically come out against the principle of repatriation saying “I don’t agree with the premise that we can on our own, unilaterally, simply rewrite the terms of the membership of this European club” but has not said anything of note about the policies on the menu for repatriation.
This is not good enough. With Cameron’s speech the debate will not so much concentrate on “in vs. out” but “for or against repatriation”. Tea Party Tories are making all the running and, unless they are checked, they threaten to hijak the agenda for the coming years. But the arguments are there to be won.
The Labour Party can and should argue that a free market in goods, services, capital and people must be balanced with basic employment rights to avoid social dumping. Cable and Balls should counter light-touch Tories by stating the case that the starkest lesson of the financial crisis is that our economies are interdependent and that the liberalisation of financial services across Europe must be matched with effective EU financial regulation. Both parties should defend the idea that British consumers buying goods from other European countries deserve basic minimum rights to stop them being ripped off.
Advocating these positions does not mean that you have to agree verbatim with every proposal from the European Commission. Indeed, British governments should, as they have successfully in the past, continue to amend Commission proposals in the national interest and pursue positive reform inside the EU. Important proposals are already on the table – the 2014-2020 budget, the Common Agricultural Policy, regional structural funds and the Common Fisheries Policy – and it is in these negotiations where reform must be found. And when Treaty change does arrive, the British government should advocate reforms such as direct democracy for the Commission, a single seat for the European Parliament in Brussels and the abolition of expensive but vacuous institutions like the Committee of the Regions.
This is the distinction that Labour and the Lib Dems must make loud and clear this week: yes to positive, sensible EU reform but an emphatic no to a right-wing repatriation agenda.