Leading article: Labour must set out its European vision

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The Independent Online
"Tories ready to slam on Euro brakes." That was a headline we ran a month ago. It proved an accurate forecast. The drivers of the national vehicle have indeed been trying harder to prove the Tories the decelerationist party. Last week's hysteria over a limited European Court of Justice decision on working hours was part of the new plot. Now Labour, too, has swivelled its right foot. Gordon Brown, Shadow Chancellor and self-advertised Euro-enthusiast, has switched tack and said Labour will hold a referendum to approve any Labour government decision on joining the single currency.

The move was made on the same day that Sir James Goldsmith spent yet more of his loot on full-page advertisements calling the Labour leader vocally challenged for not speaking up about "unelected bureaucrats". (The politically literate might usefully speculate on how an elected bureaucrat might behave let alone what a millionaire elected by French people to the European Parliament is up to here). So it seems that Labour, too, is hitting the brakes over Europe. Walworth Road is strewn with focus groups and opinion polls telling it the wind of public opinion is blowing strongly from the Eurosceptic quarter. Good ship new Labour goes with the gusts.

Students of political gamesmanship will be quick to spot the ways Labour's move is useful, tactically. Now there is no formal space between Labour's commitments and the Tories' on consulting the people. That makes it likely (Bill Cash is already saying as much) that Tory Eurosceptics will push even harder for Tory policy to become yet more anti-European. Clear blue water is the relevant cliche in these discussions, the English Channel's murky greyness failing the colour test but serving the political purpose.

But just because it is a good short-run tactic does not make it any less welcome. Labour ought to have pleased all who wish the embrace of democratic decision-making to be widened. European money is a fit subject for national consultation. It belongs to that category of constitutional decisions for which national plebiscites are a way of engaging the public's attention and eliciting a firm decision. They are appropriate not just because they give people a stake in their political destiny but because Parliament has never been a terribly impressive instrument for deciding its own shape and prospects - that is certainly true in the 1990s as we contemplate the quality of House of Commons debate and conduct. European money would take something away from the plenitude of parliamentary powers: it is right that the people, not Parliament, decide.

Gordon Brown denied yesterday that there was anything Eurosceptical to be read into his announcement. What has changed, he said, is the date when Labour thinks it best to make the call on European Monetary Union. We need to know the details of the stability pact intended to bind participants to good fiscal behaviour. And we have to contend with the fact that France and Germany are still some way away from meeting the criteria for joining.

"Don't shoot till you see the whites of their eyes" is doubtless as good a maxim in economic diplomacy as frontier skirmishing yet there is something disingenuous in Mr Brown's argument. If the French, the Jacobins of deflationary terror, and the Germans, pillars of monetary rectitude, are struggling to converge now with barely months to go, one of two things must be true. Either their political systems are capable of delivering some pretty dramatic fiscal decisions at an extraordinarily quicker pace than they have so far, or the convergence criteria are impossible, in which case the entire enterprise on its current timetable needs to be reviewed. Robin Cook has being saying something along these lines and perhaps Mr Brown has now moved a few steps towards him.

Meanwhile, what the pro-Europeans (among whom we count ourselves) seem unable to do is convince the public that the pain and the slog and the sheer political messiness of this period of European Union history between Maastricht and EMU is a harbinger of good times around the corner. What the pollsters have been picking up is a widespread cooling of the belief that they have a recipe for our better future and this sentiment is buttressed in a minority of the population by that infuriating mixture of little- Englandism, American Republicanism, and don't-like-foreigners personified by Lord Tebbit. A referendum on the currency issue would, the pollsters say, turn up a clear majority against. A referendum on continuing UK membership of the European Union - who knows how close that might run?

So what is Labour really offering in that pro-European commitment affirmed again yesterday? On the single currency it offers Fabianism - we want to see the plane on the tarmac, engine revving, before we load our baggage on board. The trouble is it's not exactly a leading stance. The Liberal Democrats are right to ask (albeit from the safety of impotence) why Labour cannot book its seat now, on the basis of the known design. The answer, once more, is fear of being caught with a position identifiably to the left of the electorate's. But the fact is that any conceivable Labour position is going to be "left" in this sense.

Public opinion on Europe may be a hard place for Labour but it is not a rock. It is more like a flabby mass of prejudice and misgiving which has lately been stiffened by events in France and Germany - the gap between French and German governments and their people over the effects of rapid convergence cannot be wished away. The public's anxieties are not baseless. It is the duty of the party which calls itself pro-European to address them honestly. A vision of Britain's future in Europe needs to recognise the deflationary momentum now at work, explain the processes and accentuate the benefits of closer union. The alternative is to reproduce as official Labour policy the non-sequiturs and silliness that pass for a case on newspaper pages purchased by Sir James Goldsmith.