Rupert Matthews: Examining our opponents' European policies - Labour
Rupert Matthews is one of the MEP candidates for the Conservative Party in the East Midlands Region and a freelance historian who has had over 150 books published. This is the first in a series of articles we will be publishing over the coming weeks in the run-up to June's European elections in which he will examine the European policies of the Conservative Party's political opponents.
With the European Elections now only three months away all the political parties will be busily drafting – and no doubt redrafting more than once – their manifestos for those elections. No doubt there will be plenty of fine words and worthy ambitions set out in those manifestos, but it might be instructive to have a quick look at the recent policies and actions of the other parties regarding the European Union. That should give us a clearer idea of what they really think than will the shiny new manifestos. I shall start with Labour.
In the past, Labour’s policy regarding the EU has famously flopped about between extremes. Labour has both advocated outright withdrawal from the EU and vociferously criticised Conservative governments for not going along with everything wanted by Brussels. Since getting into power in Britain in 1997, however, Labour policy on the EU has settled down a bit.
The best way to describe Labour policy toward the EU over the past 11 years would be that they can’t see the wood for the trees. Consistently, Labour ministers - and prime ministers - have got themselves bogged down in detailed horse-trading over individual regulations, directives and rules. They have trumpeted their successes in the little things, but have generally remained silent – or worse made catastrophic mistakes – when it comes to the bigger picture.
Remember Tony Blair’s agreement to hand back some of the British rebate in return for reform of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP)? The EU pocketed our cash, but the French then cunningly and predictably sabotaged CAP reform. By then there was talk of Mr Blair becoming the first President of Europe under the new constitution – talk that has recently surfaced again – so perhaps that coloured his thinking. Gordon Brown’s decision to sell our gold reserves when the price of gold was low and buy Euros had its origins in a similar desire to be seen to be ‘good Europeans’ – and disregarding what was right for Britain. Yes, I know that the Euro has risen against the pound since then, but it has fallen spectacularly against gold.
Take a look at Labour’s 2005 manifesto. The main policy on the EU was this: “We will secure Britain’s place in the EU.” What does that actually mean? Well, not much.
When the 2005 manifesto made specific commitments, they have ended in abject failure. “We will work to promote economic reform, bear down on regulations, make progress in the Doha development trade round, bring closer EU membership for Turkey and improve the focus and quality of EU [overseas] aid,” it says. Failure on every count.
Labour’s true attitude to the EU is really given away not so much in the 2005 manifesto but in what has happened since. Mr Blair famously gave an unambiguous pledge on the Constitutional Treaty: “We will put it to the British people in a referendum and campaign whole-heartedly for a ‘Yes’ vote.” Getting a yes from the British people was always going to be difficult. As soon as the French and Dutch voted no, the promised British referendum was shelved. Gordon Brown then took advantage of the shameful semantic stunt of redrafting the Constitutional Treaty as the Treaty of Lisbon and then denying the British people a referendum. The clear promise given to the British people was broken.
Of course, Labour loves a big government. Labour ministers and left-leaning special advisers and civil servants (remember this Labour government has politicised the civil service as never before) find it easy to fit in with the EU’s self-appointed bureaucratic elite. The built-in attitude that holds sway in Brussels is that the experts know best and that the common people need to be guided and cajoled into doing what is best for them rather than what they actually want. It is Labour writ large. No wonder Labour are happy to hand over authority to Brussels.
The Treaty of Nice and the Treaty of Lisbon have both handed extensive powers to Brussels. In return, Labour has got corporatist, big state government without all the bother of putting it through the House of Commons or explaining it to the British media.
They can see the trees of left-wing advantage, but not the wood of EU hegemony. Even if they did, would they care? Probably not. Labour shows a desire to fit in with their congenial European buddies rather than protect Britain’s interests. After all, why should Gordon Brown debate in the House of Commons or be interviewed by Jeremy Paxman when he can slip over the Channel and have a polite meeting behind closed doors instead?