Fabian Society

This is a Fabian Society lecture on Tuesday, May 19th 2009, during the European Parliament election campaign, making the case for a strong UK role within Europe.

We meet this evening at a dismal time for politics. The depression and gloom here in Britain is all too obvious, as the very conduct of our politics is under challenge as never before.


In a rather less extreme way that is true across the European Union. The relationship between the people of the continent and the European Union itself is deeply dysfunctional. That has been clear since the referenda in France and the Netherlands upon the then proposed European ‘Constitution’ and is demonstrated in the more recent referendum in Ireland on the Lisbon Treaty which replaced the idea of a "Constitution".

The European Elections on June 4-7 should have been a good opportunity to address this dysfunctional relationship and to examine the approaches and track record of the main political parties.


However it now seems likely, in Britain at any rate, that most voters' decisions in those elections will be determined by issues nothing at all to do with the European Union.


Politics in Britain at the moment is dominated by justified anger about the conduct of our Parliamentary politics and deep concerns about our economic future. The votes are likely to be cast almost entirely as a reflection upon the British Parliament and British political parties.


However this political reality does not absolve us from the need to examine the political position of the European Union, and the United Kingdom's relation to it.


The fact is that the European Union is approaching a major turning point, providing that the challenges which will arise under the Swedish presidency in the second half of this year can be overcome:

  • the Lisbon Treaty remains to be ratified, with the outcome of the Irish vote unpredictable but vital;

  • the European Parliamentary elections are taking place on June 4-7 in economic recession and there is declining support across Europe for the traditional mainstream parties;

  • a new Commission, and new President of the Commission, will need to be installed with a programme of work which charts a future direction for Europe;

  • In September a new German Bundestag will be elected and a new Government formed, whose political and economic approach will have immense significance for the future of the European Union.

Finding the way through each of these challenges will be testing and I want to argue today that it is absolutely essential to re-establish a sense of purpose for the European Union, and for the UK in relation to it.


The core of this sense of purpose has to be to show that the European Union can effectively address the day-to-day concerns of ordinary citizens.


The centre-left in Britain has a great deal to contribute in seeking to achieve this and we in Britain need to give this far more focus in our own discussions.


I believe that every test of opinion shows that the concerns of our people relate to the economy, to crime, to dealing with migration effectively, to addressing climate change and energy security, and to how to build security and peace in our continent and outside it.


All of these subjects can only be addressed internationally, and in particular at the level of the European Union.


None of them can be solved by retreating behind the White Cliffs of Dover, erecting ever higher barriers between ourselves and our neighbours and hoping that ill winds will just blow past us.


The introverted, negative and reactionary nationalism offered by David Cameron's Conservative Party, as well as UKIP and the racist BNP, would leave our citizens adrift as the international pressures we face become greater and greater. These three parties share a "Stop the World I want to get off" aspiration which is simply no answer to the very real challenges of the modern world and I hope that the voters will reject their approach on June 4th.


But it is also true that the European Union ought to have done better in addressing these matters. The EU ought to have and to be seen to have, a real contribution to make in improving the situation. However in each area the European Union has so far been less than effective and that is what now has to change.


It is the drift, impotence and ineffectiveness of the European Union in these areas which stimulate popular disaffection with the European Union and so our task is to make the European Union more effective in each of these areas.


Economy

The financial and economic crisis through which we are still living should force us all to acknowledge that we need to end the free-market economic model of the last 30 years which has dominated our politics as well as our economics.


The financial markets were not sufficiently well-regulated; there was not a strong enough differentiation between the "utility banking" necessary for purchase of houses or cars and the operation of small businesses and "casino banking" with its focus on speculative investment; there was too much toleration of off-shore tax havens and similar devices to permit international corporations to evade their responsibilities to the communities within which they operate; some financial institutions were able to avoid transparency and supervision altogether, despite their wide impact and significance.


In all of these areas we need better, more rigorous and more internationally consistent financial and economic regulation. The European Union is an essential means of achieving that since it is the economy within which our businesses predominantly operate.


Taxation of corporations needs to be harmonized across Europe. Tax competition is inefficient and ultimately ineffective.


An interesting, though rare, example of the ability of the European Union to be effective was in the regulation of mobile phone charges. EU action brought about an immediate and direct benefit to consumers which many recognize. The same approach has to be followed in other areas such as financial services.


In these vital economic areas, the European Union can and should be better at responding to the needs of the people of the continent. Regulation will only be effective if it is international rather than national, and the European Union should be at the forefront of change. Useful steps have been set out in the de la Roziere Report.


This crisis will also lead to a re-evaluation of the role and management of the euro.


The European Central Bank needs to reconsider its own operating rules in light of its experience in the last year and there are some signs that it is doing that, in order to address the needs of the real economy. The mandate for the ECB needs to be broadened in a way which permits wider engagement from the Parliament and the Council.


It now seems likely that Iceland will seek to join the European Union, that the Baltic States will seek to accelerate their joining the euro and that even major Scandinavian states such as Sweden and Denmark will seek closer relations. There seems little doubt that vulnerable economies within the eurozone turned out to be in a stronger position than vulnerable economies outside the eurozone.


It remains to be seen how all this evolves. I think that those who continue to predict the imminent break-up of the eurozone are wrong and the euro will survive, though I do think that the zone needs to be managed better as I have just said.


These are all developments which I believe that the centre-left in this country should be supporting, and in which we should be engaging.


The Cameron Conservative posture of disengagement from Europe adds up to nothing less than an economic betrayal of the British people at a time when economic and financial reform is desperately needed.


Crime

Whilst crime remains a central concern for the citizens of Europe it remains the case that the European Union does not give sufficient priority to fighting crime.


I refer specifically to serious and organised crime, including drug-dealing and people trafficking; to illegal migration and false seeking of asylum; and to countering terrorism whatever its origins.


These issues top the political agenda across Europe, and they are often the most potent in mobilising political activity, often in a reactionary and even dangerous way. They can even be used by poisonous demagogues to undermine the very democracy which has in some cases so recently been created. The current election campaign for the European Parliament is already showing the readiness of some extremist parties to stir up this kind of hatred.


It is not difficult to see why these crimes motivate anger. The threat from terrorism remains very real. Hundreds of thousands of women and children are trafficked in the EU every year. Thousands of people die each year from drug abuse. Illegal migration raises deep concerns in every city.


That is why I believe that crime and policing must move up the agenda of the European Union.


In our globalized world no single country can tackle these problems alone.


In a world with millions of international journeys and economic transactions every year the Conservative ideas of "Splendid Isolation" can do nothing to address international criminality, terrorism or serious and organised crime or address patterns of international migration.


In each of these areas we will achieve most by sharing experience, information and resources and by identifying, and then targeting, the threats systematically and consistently.


The best means of making a difference is through practical and pragmatic international collaboration.


There has already been action to address organised crime and terrorism at the levels of the European Union. Europol, Eurojust and the European Borders Agency have been established but their work needs to be strengthened.


We need practical EU support for intelligence-led operations and cross-border prosecutions, the development of joint teams to combat drug-dealing and people-trafficking and the sharing of information, for example in forensic techniques, to facilitate joint work.


And in all of this effective intelligence, within a clear legal basis for data protection, is essential if we are to target, track down, identify and convict the criminals who through terrorist violence and committing serious and organised crime threaten the security and strength of our society.


The European Union can greatly assist our ability to reduce the international crime which reaches into all of our communities. We need actively to work to strengthen our ability to do that.


For the United Kingdom that means active engagement. The UK needs to be an active participant and not a powerless observer. Those political parties which try to block all co-operation with the European Union are assisting the criminal gangs which we should be trying to destroy.


Migration

Migration is a positive and creative aspect of our modern lives.


Our communities are enriched, our economies strengthened, our security enhanced by well-organised and managed migration.


However there is no doubt that fears of illegal, or even badly-managed migration are very real in many of our communities, and that is why we need to work to control and organize this much more effectively.


In Britain I believe that this has been happening since the February 2005 White Paper on the subject and the position is steadily improving, though there is a lot still to be done.


One aspect of what needs to be improved is work within the European Union. We are not part of the Schengen system, but we are deeply affected by the way in which that operates.

Britain needs to work more closely with our European allies to make it more difficult still for illegal migration and people-trafficking to take place into the European Union, whether by land, sea or air.


This requires a number of measures including establishing internationally consistent and coherent biometric data to be an automatic part of our visas, passports and identity cards where we have them.


It means agreeing and implementing with our international partners the best measures for consistent international use of passenger data.


It means physically co-operating to strengthen the borders of the European Union, in some of which the UK is a world leader. And it means strengthening the readmission procedures with a number of the countries from whom illegal migration takes place most frequently.


It means co-ordinating our trade development and aid policies to support economic growth in the countries from which migration is most pronounced.


It means moving towards common visa policies between the UK and the Schengen area.


But most of all it requires the change in mindset which acknowledges that the interest of the United Kingdom is not to work against the rest of the European Union but to co-ordinate and combine with our European allies to build a system which is fair and resilient. Yet again this is something which the Brioti9sh Conservative Party is quite unable to do.


Climate Change and Energy Security

The European Union already gives significant priority to issues of Climate Change.


In the last Parliament Labour MEPs have increased renewable energy and recycling targets, approved measures to improve energy efficiency and energy saving, introduced the "eco label" for environmental damage minimizing products and legislated to cut damaging emissions.


But the progress that has already been made requires more intensive commitment in action and not just in words, though of course a strong EU position at the Copenhagen summit is very important.


For example a report from the European Commission demonstrates Britain's record on renewable energy generation is amongst the worst in Europe and needs major new commitments.


Every vote for the Conservative and other anti-EU political parties will significantly weaken the essential drive to fight climate change.


Peace and Security

Finally the European Union has to show that it is a major force to promote peace in security in the continent and more widely.


Contrary to the arguments of some Europhiles, this is not simply a matter of changing the rules through adoption of the Lisbon Treaty.


It requires a much higher level political commitment by European leaders to promote joint working and joint intervention as necessary.


At a time when Barrack Obama has committed to a transformational new international strategy, the European Union needs to contribute very actively rather than just standing back and watching and praying. This can only be done through political leadership.


Everyone will have their own priorities for this joint work.


Mine are the Western Balkans (where the inability to agree on the recognition of Kosovo can only give rise to despair), relations with Russia and peace in the wider Middle East.


In each of these areas the incoherence of the interventions from the European Union is deeply damaging and in each case the uncertainties which arise from the instability of the relationships have significant implications for this country.


Again the isolation and self-preoccupation of the Conservatives would actively prevent the kind of political co-ordination within the European Union which I think is absolutely essential.


Conclusion

I have tried to set out the type of programme to which I believe that the European Union needs to commit in order to re-establish a sense of direction and purpose, after a significant period of relative stagnation.


Some in the room will, I've no doubt, pick other priorities or different policies.


But I hope that we will all agree that a programme of this type is absolutely essential if the European Union is again to pick up the direction of travel which has been so influential in the last three decades.


I hope that the British left will engage even more strongly in this debate and that, despite the otherwise surrounding political gloom, voters will support Labour's approach to these matters at the election on June 4th.


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