Europe needs reform but Britain belongs at its heart

The young Ukrainians waving the EU flag in the hope of a better future should serve as a reminder, amid the dark and dangerous days that have descended on their country, that a strong and free Europe speaking with one voice matters as much now as it ever did.

To my parents’ generation the EU symbolised a peace and prosperity that too often, too easily, we have taken for granted.

Indeed, our proud and confident country, with its tradition of looking out to the world, is now being run by a government arguing with itself about whether we should turn inwards and away from our own continent. It is more important than ever in these circumstances that political leaders set out their position towards the EU clearly before the next general election.

David Cameron has committed the Conservatives to a major renegotiation of Britain’s relationship with Europe on an arbitrary timetable for a 2017 referendum about Britain leaving the EU.

But he is a prime minister who cannot tell us the nature of his renegotiation strategy or even if he will campaign to keep Britain in Europe. There is no appetite for his approach from our EU partners. During her visit to London recently Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, refused to support either Mr Cameron’s timetable or his proposals. She explained that he needs unanimous backing to get a new treaty. It is clear he has none.

Mr Cameron’s position, riven with doubt and driven by weakness, means his priority after 2015 would not be tackling the cost of living crisis or creating jobs and prosperity. Instead, a Conservative government would be dominated by an all-consuming and damaging obsession within his party about whether Britain should leave the EU.

You do not need a crystal ball to predict the consequences of such a state of affairs; you only need to read the history of John Major’s government.

Labour’s position on Europe, by contrast, is clear and principled: we strongly believe Britain’s future is in the EU. And my priorities for government after the next election are very different from those of the Conservatives. Labour will focus on dealing with the cost of living crisis by building a better economy so that people can look forward to a better future for their children. An arbitrary timetable for a referendum on leaving Europe would damage our ability to deliver on these priorities.

But I know the reputation of the EU is, with reason, at a low ebb. If Britain’s future in Europe is to be secured, Europe needs to work better for Britain. And Britain needs to work more effectively for change within the EU.

Europe must do more to address common economic challenges by improving competitiveness, tackling youth unemployment and building an economy that better promotes prosperity. Completing the single market in energy, services and the digital economy is crucial to this.

Europe should also do more to address anxieties about immigration. We need fairer rules on what happens when people move here from another country and action to prevent a race to the bottom, where workers already here have their pay or conditions undercut.

A Labour government would work with our EU partners to lengthen the existing transitional arrangements for countries joining the EU so that their citizens have to wait longer before gaining rights to work here. There should be reforms to rules allowing people to claim child benefit or child tax credit when their children live abroad. And we should look at ways to make it easier to deport people who have recently arrived in this country when they commit crime.

We can start building alliances in Europe for these reforms immediately, unhindered by divisions in our party or having to negotiate a major new treaty with 27 other member states by 2017.

The agenda for change, however, must address people’s concerns about how power is exercised in the EU. This means giving back more control to national parliaments. And it means responding to concern that the EU is intent on an inexorable drive to an ever closer union. I am clear this is not Labour’s vision for Europe.

And it is important to emphasise that there are no current proposals – from either the EU or any member state – for a further transfer of powers from Britain. Therefore it is unlikely there will be any such proposals in the next parliament. But the British people know that the history of the EU, as well as uncertainty about precisely what a changing Europe and further integration in the eurozone might involve, means that a further transfer of powers remains possible.

So in a speech today I am announcing that the next Labour government will legislate for a new lock: there would be no transfer of powers from the UK to the EU without a referendum on our continued membership of the EU.

This would not just be a referendum on the narrow question of whether to allow a transfer of powers from Britain to Brussels; as we have seen in other countries, such votes are too easily ignored. This position, setting out the conditions in the next parliament under which a Labour government would hold an in/out referendum, offers the British people a clear choice at the next election.

A choice between a divided and ungovernable Conservative party that threatens to inflict huge uncertainty on business and undermine Britain’s influence abroad – a party increasingly arguing for exit from Europe.

Or a One Nation Labour party that will govern in the national interest and focus on what is best for Britain – a party that will work within Europe to deliver real change.

The writer is leader of the Labour party

Letter in response to this article:

Inconceivable that an EU deal can be reached by 2017 / From Lord Taverne

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