The Europe Debate: Labour's semi-cooperation policy

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The Independent Online
The case against Labour's and the pro-European Tories' handling of the beef crisis was laid out yesterday by Menzies Campbell, the Liberal Democrat foreign-affairs spokesman. "You're either in favour of non-cooperation [with EU business] or you're not. To say you're in favour of a little non-cooperation is a bit like saying you are in favour of a little sin but not too much."

What, then, was the genesis of Labour's cautious policy of qualified support for John Major's non-cooperation strategy? On 22 May Tony Blair had about 10 minutes' notice of Mr Major's statement in the Commons of his non-cooperation policy, which is why he confined himself almost entirely in the House to asking questions about how far Mr Major had thought out his strategy. The first clear hint of how Labour was moving did not come until next day. The Leader of the Opposition declared: "Talk of war on Europe is foolish and deeply unhelpful. But if this is, as Kenneth Clarke has described it, a way of exerting pressure to break an impasse by concentrating minds, that is a tactic that other countries have used. I will not undermine it, in the interests of the country, provided it is measured and lawful."

By this time, three options had been discussed by Mr Blair, Donald Dewar, the Chief Whip, and Robin Cook, Labour's foreign-affairs spokesman, at the end of a telephone during his trip to Eastern Europe: qualified support; outright opposition, and what a Labour source described as "sitting on the fence". The last two options were ruled out, the third because it would be too feeble and the second because it would expose Labour to the charge of being unpatriotic. Mr Blair sensed a trap and told colleagues: "We will play it as tactically and cannily as Major is (doing)." So party managers settled on the first option. They knew public opinion would broadly support Mr Major, although they may not have realised it would make no impact on the Tories' overall popularity, as last week's Mori poll indicates.

After Mr Cook returned, the qualified-opposition approach was further refined: government policy is to oppose every proposal that has to be decided by unanimity. That means the strategy bites only on decisions that Britain wants taken, or at least does not mind being taken. (Those it is against it would oppose anyway.) Labour decided to ensure it did not support every use of the veto, for example the vetoing of fraud measures which the Government had long advocated. In practice, the party has given itself the maximum flexibility: if the policy works, Labour has supported it; if it does not, it still has room for opposition.

This may not be the stuff of visionary statesmanship but as raw politics it has a good chance of resolving a painful dilemma.