Time to get our act together on Europe

Jenni Dunsmore says even if we manage to jettison the constructive ambiguity, too much of Labour’s positioning on the EU has been shallow and, especially in Scotland, we cannot afford to waste the short time we now have to construct a coherent and positive policy on Europe.

“Please do not waste this time” Donald Tusk implored the UK, as the Tories skipped off to indulge in a summer leadership contest before recess. But it is also wise advice for the opposition parties, and in particular Labour which is on its own long and winding road to clarity.

Are we wasting this time? Without a doubt. We will be like the dog that caught the rabbit if we get a second referendum or a general election in short order, unless we are prepared to be honest with ourselves and the electorate about why our EU membership matters.

The results of the European elections confirmed what most Labour members and supporters had been shouting for years: the experiment in constructive ambiguity has failed. UK Labour refused to listen to warnings from Scottish Labour over our crushing experience of this strategy after the independence referendum, but we can hardly blame the UK party when we catastrophically failed to heed our own advice.

The electorate is fractured and we have no idea what is coming from the next Tory Prime Minister, from leading us to the brink of no-deal to attempting to prorogue parliament, calling for a second referendum or the government collapsing into a general election. The only way to navigate this political landscape is by going back to what Scottish Labour and the labour movement believes in, and making the case loudly and unapologetically. There isn’t time to waste.

And yet, and yet. Labour continues to insist that our first preference is a general election, in which we would deliver a ‘jobs-first Brexit’, and our second preference is for a second referendum in which we would campaign to Remain. So … which is it? We’re either committed to delivering Brexit, or we’re committed to preventing it?

Leaving the EU is a right-wing project premised on lies, attempting splendid isolationism with a dash of colonial nostalgia. It’s a neoliberal blueprint that will destroy the progressive achievements we have made and remove us from the battleground to regulate the 21st century marketplace on data protection, multinational tax and sustainable development. And it will not be any more palatable simply because Labour delivers it.

Even after the crushing election result and the policy volte-face, the Scottish Labour leadership appears to remain both sceptical and worryingly misinformed. In his post-election interview with the Herald on Sunday, Richard Leonard referred to the

areas of decision-making that currently rest with a Commission in Brussels, a European Parliament that convenes in plenary session in Strasbourg, that’s subject to, in the end, decision-making by a Council of Ministers…

Overlooking the laboured point on the location of these institutions (one assumes meeting in other European cities makes things undemocratic?), his grasp of the legislative procedure is shaky. The European Parliament is a co-legislator with the Council; it is not subject to national governments. How is it possible that after 40 years of membership, a referendum campaign and three years of political wrangling since then, the party leadership doesn’t know the basics of the EU institutions? It makes the ‘remain and reform’ strategy look somewhat superficial if we would currently fail a Modern Studies exam. 

This ambivalence was most obvious during the European election campaign. Scottish Labour, like many other parties, felt so awkward about the ‘Europe question’ that we campaigned on local and devolved issues. It has always been an insult to voters and the candidates on the list to ignore the issues on the ballot. The 2019 election was a bonus election in which we should have tried to sell popular policies to a newly Europeanised Remain electorate. That’s not to say we could have reversed Scottish Labour’s steady decline, which is a broader and more fundamental problem. But while it was always going to be a struggle to hold onto our second MEP seat, losing both was simply an own-goal.

We had pro-Remain, pro-second referendum, pro-free movement candidates who would have joined the Socialist and Democrat Group in the European Parliament to advance policies on tackling the climate emergency, continuing work on minimum working conditions, zero hour contracts and the gig economy to prevent undercutting across the continent, increased measures on tackling tax avoidance at EU level, and pushing for fair trade deals which work for Scotland.

Unlike the SNP or the Tories, our EU alliances with sister parties were stronger and more effective by sitting in the Parliament’s second largest group, which was vying to become the biggest group and finally retake the Commission presidency for the centre-left. And with David Martin we had Parliament’s most experienced MEP – of any political group and any national delegation – heading our party list, with a network of support in Brussels and unrivalled experience of constitutional and trade policy issues. Instead we chose to dazzle the Scottish electorate with a giant photo of Jeremy Corbyn and some unfulfillable pledges on policing, buses and funding for local services. As election campaigns go it can best be described as a waste of time.

So we should have campaigned emphatically on a People’s Vote + Remain ticket, and that has now been accepted. But if we only demand a second referendum as a procedural tool to get out of this parliamentary deadlock, and don’t use the time to rebuild and maintain a genuine case for Remain, we will blunder into a general election or second referendum unable to convince the public, because we cannot convince ourselves, that our EU membership is indispensable. A majority of Scots are pro-EU but a substantial minority is not, and I suspect our support for the European project is shallower than we like to admit. A third of Scots voted leave. The Brexit Party came second last month. We are now re-running the arguments against independence to shore up our own No voters and try to convince others, but are doing no such groundwork on Brexit. On independence we left the lead to the Tories; on Brexit we seem determined to grasp the same fate by leaving the lead to the SNP and Lib Dems.

This groundwork is especially vital in Scotland because as the government swings into indyref2 mode our position on the EU needs to be strong enough to withstand the weaponising it will get over the next year. Sympathetic comments by Spanish politicians will be heralded by the SNP, the Tories will blizzard the north-east with doomsday leaflets about the Common Fisheries Policy, and about the only thing all parties will agree on in the currency debate is that the Euro – the currency of 19 member states and the second most used in the world – terrifies everyone.

Despite a brutal EU referendum campaign and the fallout now Leave’s lies are being stress-tested, it still feels as if we haven’t had an honest conversation in Scotland about our place in Europe. We cannot afford to reach for old tropes in the next independence debate to scare the electorate with horror stories from Brussels, nor avoid difficult questions when they arise. The Yes campaign blithely refer to Scotland’s future as a ‘normal’ member state, but skirt round issues such as accession, Schengen, bailouts and the rebate. These are huge issues on which Scotland’s future hangs, but we cannot challenge the SNP’s empty promises until we are assured in our own position.

The Common Fisheries Policy is extremely unpopular with fishermen. Like all policies it continues to be reformed, but where do we stand on it? How much should be changed, and what is the inconvenient truth about how we manage stocks and access? Freedom of movement does not drive down wages, it boosts economies and reflects our political values that the EU is a union of people, not just goods and services. The EU budget is 1% of EU GDP, it’s reinvested back in the member states, and its irregularities in the accounts are largely the fault of national governments failing to properly account for the use of the money, as we saw with the Scottish Government and the European Social Fund this month.

As progressives we need to be confident enough in our pro-Europeanism to criticise the institutions and policies when needed without crumbling into a constitutional leave/remain argument. But by never taking the EU issue head on we have never given ourselves the space to be critical. We need to be clear about recent failings of the EU: our inhumane treatment of migrants crossing the Mediterranean is a stain on all Europeans, and was an abject failure of national governments to take collective action, despite enormous pressure from the European Parliament and Commission. The brutal austerity inflicted on Greece, and the limited progress we have made on economic and monetary reform were political choices made by democratic institutions in Brussels with conservative majorities. Like our position on Holyrood and Westminster, if you don’t like the policies – and often we don’t – change the politicians. The structure will hold.

We need to be honest with ourselves – and the electorate – that EU rules do not, in fact, prevent Labour’s proposals on state aid, and every member state with a social democratic government not only manages to roll out its domestic agenda but uses tools at EU level to enhance it. We must be a party comfortable with ourselves and our ideological and pragmatic position that the benefits of EU membership vastly outweigh the compromise of pooling sovereignty.

‘Remain and reform’ is fine as a strategy, but let’s not pretend we’re reinventing the wheel. The EU is a dynamic institution, constantly reforming, reassessing and adapting. It’s receptive to new ideas from member states and politicians who roll up their sleeves and get involved. The economic and political fallout of leaving the European Union would be the biggest step backwards our country has ever taken. We are reaping what we have sown for decades of ignoring and maligning the EU for political convenience – but right now there’s time to find our feet. We shouldn’t waste it.

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21 thoughts on “Time to get our act together on Europe

  1. For 50 odd years, even before the UK joined the EU, politicians from all parties either ignored or lied about the EU. David Martin used to tell a story that when he was Rapporteur to the EU Parliament, he set up a meeting in the House of Commons in Westminster to which all Labour Party MP’s were invited, as a get to know you and work together. Only one turned up, only to realise that he was in the wrong room. The woeful ignorance, still, of many MP’s of all parties, of the workings of the Council, the Commission and the EU Parliament is regrettably, only too apparent.

  2. “it still feels as if we haven’t had an honest conversation in Scotland about our place in Europe”. I thought we had that back in the summer of 2014. Remember ‘the only way to ensure Scotland’s place in the EU was to vote NO. Ed Miliband even signed his name to it.

  3. [Moderator note: This poster is now banned for attempting to subvert a previous ban using a different username.].

  4. “The Yes campaign blithely refer to Scotland’s future as a ‘normal’ member state, but skirt round issues such as accession, Schengen, bailouts and the rebate. These are huge issues on which Scotland’s future hangs, but we cannot challenge the SNP’s empty promises until we are assured in our own position”.

    In an article that is trying to be pro-European, the above statement stands out like a sore thumb. Though it does make sense if you assume the author is pro-EU but does not want her own country to be a full member state in its own right. It makes sense if she would rather her own country remained (sic) a small, backwater “dependency” of a reluctant member state whose representatives she trusts will forego their own country’s interests in favour of Scotland’s …. despite the mountain of evidence that simply doesn’t happen.

    If the issues she cites are “problems” for an Indy Scotland, they are problems for a UK that seeks to Remain in the EU. To imply otherwise is to imply Scotland is in some way incapable of governing itself as successfully as ALL our small, independent neighbours do. It is to imply that Scotland, alone, needs to cling to the apron strings of its larger, more capable neighbour. In short, it is the attitude that has seen Scottish (sic) Labour plummet in the polls up here. The people who buy into that attitude are already voting Tory while the bulk of Labour’s traditional support has rejected it and are now voting SNP and Green.

    Scottish (sic) Labour’s only hope to become relevant again, in my opinion, is to embrace independence and seek to become the govt of a fully independent, sovereign Scotland and stop looking over its shoulder at what the “real” party hierarchy in London will let it do.

    1. Hello, indeed I agree that the issues I mentioned (Euro, Schengen, justice and home affairs opt-outs, CFP etc) are as much UK challenges as Scottish ones. I do not think Scotland is incapable of governing itself. I think the indy debate is about if it’s the best decision for Scotland, not if it’s possible – it certainly is. And I’m strongly pro-EU so I have no problem with the Euro, Schengen or full participation in JHA. My point is the SNP shouldn’t avoid them (if it advocates indy + EU membership then it should fully and clearly defend these elements as part of our obligations as pro-EU member state, and explain how that would fit with the UK internal market/lack of hard border) and Labour shouldn’t use them as a cheap Eurosceptic trick to try to scare the electorate. So whatever the conclusion of the next indyref debate, we don’t end up like the UK now with multiple interpretations of which version of Scotland’s future we were voting for.

      1. Thanks for the reply.

        In my (obviously biased) opinion the SNP ARE “defending” those elements. They are positively vociferous in their defence of freedom of movement as essential to Scotland’s future prosperity for example. If it appears they are quiet on the issues it is probably because the other parties and, consequently, the media are uninterested in them. Why concentrate on the real issues when you’ve got a juicy soundbite from Boris or Nigel and a swipe at Jeremy or Nicola to lay before the baying masses of Brexiteers? But, as I said …. all in my (obviously biased) opinion.

        Where I do disagree with you (though it may be over interpretation rather than intent) is your statement;

        “So whatever the conclusion of the next indyref debate, we don’t end up like the UK now with multiple interpretations of which version of Scotland’s future we were voting for”.

        With Scottish independence it is important that the country’s future DOES have multiple interpretations. Each party must show what their particular vision for Scotland is giving the electorate a choice as to what path they wish the country to embark on. That is what Democracy is all about.

        Unionists have always couched the Indy debate in the same way that Brexit has been sold. That is, “freedom and splendid isolation in a right wing UK OR subjugation in a European super-state” versus “poverty in isolation OR Nirvana in Euro-harmony”. The Indy debate was similarly sold (by unionists) as “prosperity and harmony in the multi-party UK OR destitution in a SNP one party state” while they also got to frame the Indy position (thanks media) as “England bad v FREEDOM”. No nuance, just polemics.

        While Brexit is essentially one (all-be-it important) issue, independence is ALL the issues and how we are best able to tackle them. That NEEDS multiple interpretations to show people there are many options out there. Thus countering the “SNP one party state” myth that was used to hide the reality of the fully democratic future Indy offered.

  5. even though I support independence for Scotland I have to say this is one of the best articles I have read in a long time anywhere – an excellent piece. It covers everything that is wrong with Labour at the present and the dismal chance the party has in recovering its position as a political lead in Scotland. I find it sad that the party has sunk to this level. Reading 2 other articles ‘Dear Richard’ and ‘The death of Labour…’ I despaired seeing the same error of judgement over the political reality of the party’s situation and the outright contempt for voters who had turned to the SNP. Labour has a great tradition but long ago it left its constituency behind it taking their voters for granted to pursue policies that John Major would have been content to support. To talk of making deals with this party and that party to drive an agenda across that is only consistent in its dislike of the SNP and taking for granted that other parties would be willing to take part in this Labour led agenda is a fantasy. Party’s carve out their own future Labour has to do the same. The real problem labour has at present is that it has reduced its level of debate to a level of football tops. The party has to decide what it stands for. It needs to stop the sloganeering; the ending of speeches and interviews with ‘for the many not the few’ is embarrassing. The party has to find out what it stands for and then stand and argue on that platform. It won’t be an easy future, but it will be an honest one and one that could be attractive to many who have left the party for other groups.

  6. What is it that you think is wrong with the ambition to be a normal member state?

  7. The problem with arguing for a new referendum is that we are not clear what the leave option is. Cameron discovered that the public don’t necessarily vote the way you want them to vote. So let’s say Labour do organise a further referendum, with the options of Remain, and some variant on Leave (which has to be credible for the referendum to be credible). And then let’s assume that the public vote for the option we don’t want i.e. Leave (which I think there is a good chance of). What happens then? Labour would be stuck with implementing a policy which it had campaigned against. How credible would this be? Does this strategy not run the risk of putting Labour in exactly the same position the Tories found themselves in in 2016?
    In any event, I think the idea that we can roll the clock back to 2016 and effectively re-run the referendum is a fantasy. There is no going back. The Tories have realised that they face extinction unless they facilitate Brexit in some form very soon. So instead of fighting the battles of the past, we need to be thinking about the future. What position should Scottish Labour take on Scotland and the UK’s relationship with the rest of world, and the EU, post-Brexit?

  8. Hello Jenni
    If we don’t do something that 9 percent will seem like the good old days .
    Scotland voted to remain Scottish Labour should have been for remain no messing about with General Election statements .
    That was why I was happy when last Saturday Richard moved us to Remain and raised his profile by giving tv interviews

    1. [Moderator note: This poster is now banned for attempting to subvert a previous ban using a different username.]

      1. Thank you for your reply Dave
        Was waiting on someone saying that haha.
        England voted leave I can understand MPS in Leave constituencies voting Leave at Westminster But not any MP who represents a remain area and that is all the Scottish MPS of all parties .I voted remain I see nothing good in Brexit but I know we have to take on board and address the worries of leave voters at least in Scotland .
        Was speaking to a man on the bus today strong Independence supporter scathing about 2014 better together all liars etc and used the f word .
        Surprisingly he also castigated todays SNP told me we don’t need them to secure an Indy vote .
        I ended up defending them SNP are the only party to vote for if you want Indy he swore so we did not agree haha
        And BBC just said Campaign teams got some MPS to photograph their ballot papers to prove they voted for who they said they would last time banned now haha

  9. Got a 4 page glossy mag through the post today Thursday 20th June it says What Scotland really thinks about the EU .
    Its from some organization called Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy Group in the European Parliament its findings are based on online polling of 3thousand adults throughout Scotland March 2019 on behalf of David Coburn MEP
    Photy of EFDD Group President Nigel Farage MEP on the back
    Published by the EFDD Group in the European Parliament .
    As the European Election has already taken place can someone tell me why this is out now ,Is it anything to do with the Boris v Hunt Tory Beauty Horror Leadership race .
    STV News say its going on a meet the candidates tour wander if a certain red bus will be brought back into use .
    Is the Magazine to keep their minds on Brexit.

  10. Ok Jenni everyone including Duncan never mind Brexit Indy etc .
    Something Important have you been watching the womens world cup if not why not .
    I have been cheering on Scotland from the start .
    They were living their dream .And a credit to Scotland Womens football in Scotland will benefit at all levels .BBC reporting Scotland were out talking to girls football teams .
    The one time Scotland were involved in a stonewall penalty its against us
    Me my 2 hearing aids oxygen and glasses all watched our Keeper make 2 world class saves I punched the air shouted yes and was gutted when it had to be retaken .
    The Ref goes to watch a telly replay took that long she must have had to wait for commentators to stop talking
    The men would have chased the ref all over the pitch .For making them take take it again and the Telly would have got a boot through it haha

  11. If Boris is to be PM he will need to take a pay cut.
    He will have to give up Corporate speeches over 400thousand pounds since he left the cabinet .275thousand a year from the Daily Telegraph he will have to get by on the PMS salary 158thousand

  12. Thank you for your comment Bungo
    Our Boris is having a few problems at the moment haha.
    1 is saying he is not showing up for Tuesdays Sky News Tory Beauty horror contestant Leadership debate .
    Sky say no Boris no debate .
    Sky have already built the set if he does not show up he will get the blame
    Another will be if by not doing it he puts Rupert Murdoch on his back .
    Then sources believed to be on Team Jeremy the Tory one according to the Papers panel on BBC were behind the Sunday press Boris is a security risk story and the Bottler Boris nickname haha

  13. The Tory Beauty horror contestant leadership contest .
    The finalists to be Leader of the Conservative and Unionist Party and worse PM.
    2 rich boys with no idea of how we live .
    Most of todays papers from Gordon Brown to the FM ln speeches have warned that Brexit and this leadership contest will have serious problems for Scotland all bad .

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