While Cameron wields his EU referendum-shaped stick at the UKIP dogs baying at his ankles, the growing voice of UK Euroscepticism is causing untold damage to our economy. For Labour to offer the same hollow electoral promise would be costly, isolating and potentially catastrophic to our national interests.
Despite having no desire for a British EU-exit, Cameron has ceded to UKIP’s pressure by promising a referendum that poses a huge risk. Only in 2011 did he cry in the Commons that being in the EU is in our national interest: now was “not the time to talk about running away”. That he is doing exactly that is a sign of dangerous vote mongering that the Labour party should steer well clear of.
The risk that the British public would use the referendum to leave the EU is significant, putting free trade, foreign investments and UK jobs in serious jeopardy. The mere talk of an in/out vote is already damaging UK economic interests. Business Secretary Vince Cable told The Independent that Nissan, Vauxhall, BMW Mini and Ford have all threatened to pull out of the UK if they lose access to the single market. He called Cameron’s move “seriously irresponsible”, blaming it for endangering British economic recovery and putting 3.5 million jobs at risk.
Labour’s Shadow Business Secretary Chuka Umunna agrees, describing membership of a reformed Europe as an “absolutely central part” of ensuring economic growth. He told Radio 4’s Today programme that the idea Europe is to blame for Britain’s problems is “a complete and utter con”.
Europe is our biggest export market. 60 per cent of City-based firms are in London because of the single market. Instead of retreating from Europe, Miliband is right to be seeking to strengthen our economic ties. In digital telecomms alone, if Britain took the lead in completing the single market, our 220,000 online retailers would be opened up to 500 million EU consumers.
An anchor for global trade
Membership of a strong EU is also vital to our global trading interests. With the GDP of emerging markets rapidly overtaking that of the west, never has it been more important to leverage the collective weight of the EU to secure the best deals for British exports.
Sir Mike Rake, President of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), is adamant on this position. “As a global trading nation we want the rest of the world to play by an open and enforceable set of rules,” he commented in The Daily Telegraph. “Britain could call for that alone then watch as others made the decisions. Or, Britain can push the world’s largest economic bloc in a liberal direction.” As the world’s most integrated and open trading area, the EU is our most powerful springboard to multilateral trade agreements with key emerging markets.
There is growing division in the business community over this issue, with rival group Business for Britain pressing for a referendum. They argue that it is the best way to secure a better deal for the UK in the EU, allowing it to be more competitive and less governed by regulations.
But it is foolhardy and arrogant to assume that the threat of an EU exit will force commissioners to grant British reforms. Unlike Cameron’s desperate promises at the end of the Scottish NO campaign, we cannot expect President of the EU Commission Jean-Claude Juncker to come grovelling with last-minute concessions. He has already made it clear that core principles of the EU cannot be abandoned, and such action would set a dangerous precedent for other member states.
Work with Europe
Far better for Labour is a diplomatic approach that sets firm our commitment to remain in the EU with the reforms that Britain seeks. Former EU Commissioner Peter Mandelson has said that Juncker is open to working with Britain. But he advised Cameron on Radio 4’s Today programme to stop “waving his EU referendum in the air like a pistol” and get some top quality British politicians into Brussels to start working with the EU chief.
Responding to the UKIP threat with ever increasing Euroscepticism is only serving to distance us from the allies we need. Where Cameron’s EU strategy failed in its humiliating attempt to block Juncker from presidency, Miliband seeks to strengthen European alliances to gain support for our demands.
Former EU President José Manuel Barroso told Radio 4’s World at One programme last week that Cameron’s referendum promise has left us second fiddle to Germany on European decision-making. “With Tony Blair, Britain was really playing a very important role in the European Union – they were at the centre of decisions – today, this is no longer the case.”
Not only has Cameron’s referendum “pistol” blighted UK investment and endangered British jobs, it has distanced us from the European decision-making process we seek to reform. Labour too wants to protect our benefit system, complete the single market and control the EU budget. But it rightfully recognises that we can only do this from within a position of EU influence. Copying Cameron’s hollow electoral promise would only alienate a core voter base that sensibly supports its refusal to risk a crucial national interest.
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