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Labour party conference - does the centre-left have a vision for Europe?

  • Date(s)
    25 September 2007
  • Time
    8.00am to 9.30am
  • Location
    Purbeck Room, The Wessex Hotel

In the face of mounting pressure in Britain to hold a referendum on the EU reform treaty, the Europe minister Jim Murphy said he was ‘absolutely confident that the treaty would be ratified in parliament.' He was speaking at a fringe event held jointly by Policy Network and the Centre for European Reform at the Labour party conference in Bournemouth, chaired by the EU trade commissioner Peter Mandelson.

Responding to the theme Does the Centre-Left Have a Vision for Europe?, the Europe minister said that the reasons underlying public disaffection with the EU in Britain and other European states was not lack of vision but visibility. In recent debate there had been too much focus on structures rather than delivery, he said. The central challenge for the EU in delivering for its citizens was not only to ‘welcome’ globalisation but also to ‘stay ahead of it’. Furthermore, the European centre-left needed to address the 92 million of its citizens that are economically inactive and also face the challenge of welcoming other nations into the EU, ‘in particular, Turkey'.

The leader of the Italian DS, Piero Fassino, agreed that the European left had to urgently address the reasons underlying popular public disaffection with the EU, reflected in the current debate on the EU reform treaty. The no votes in France and the Netherlands on the aborted constitutional treaty had shown that ‘the majority of citizens now think the EU is a risk.’ he said.

Therefore, it is not enough for the EU to be prosperous; it also needed to play an active role in addressing people’s fears around globalisation and the social and economic transformation of European societies. To do this the EU needed the appropriate tools, including a stronger parliament and majority-based decision making mechanisms, as well as the new treaty. But more importantly it needed strong political parties at the national level to respond effectively to people’s fears. Therefore, the central challenge for the centre-left therefore was how to build effective political alliances between the centre and the left, as Fassino’s own DS party was seeking to do in Italy.

Poul Nyrup Rasmussen, President of the Party of European Socialists, said there was a strong emerging consensus between the European-wide centre-left and social democrat parties at the national level. There was a general acknowledgement of the need to hold the political centre-ground in order to maintain power. He claimed the PES had provided an effective bridge between the classical left and the modernizing centre-left in Europe.

However, obstacles to forming a centre-left majority in Europe remained. In particular, European leaders needed to find a way of bringing ‘Poland on board’ and developing a Polish centre-left party. Furthermore. in facing the challenges of globalization, the centre-left had to learn not only how to adapt to, but also govern market forces. For instance, the recent Northern Rock crisis in the UK had shown the need for ‘a better London City’ despite an underlying commitment to promote economic competitiveness.

Returning to the theme of the meeting, the director the Centre for European Reform Charles Grant said there were four key points on which a common centre-left vision for Europe was emerging – three positive, and one negative. First, there was a growing consensus around the need for Social Europe, as laid out by Policy Network’ vice chair (policy) Roger Liddle in a recent paper for the Fabian Society. However, the Labour government in the UK was not saying enough about Social Europe, which was one of the reasons why the trade unions in Britain were beginning to turn against the government on the issue of the EU reform treaty.

Second, on climate change, the centre-left had shown itself more in favour of concerted action at the EU level than parties on the right. Furthermore, right-wing parties in the EU were less favourable than the left to further EU integration, particularly over Turkish accession. Finally, Grant worried that protectionism was becoming a ‘defining trait’ of the left in Europe, as it already had in America. While not all centre-left parties in the EU were against free trade, their leaders had not done enough to make the case for globalization, he said.

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