Gary Titley: Labour must not be too frightened to lead the European debate

Friday 13 February 2009 01:00 GMT

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


Ending child poverty is a Labour government priority so you would think it would have been pushing that as a European priority. Not so.

In 1997 before the start of the British Presidency, I suggested to the then Foreign Secretary Robin Cook that children should be one of the side themes of the Presidency. He was positive but referred me to his officials and other departments were consulted. There then followed an interview with the director of the EU sector of the Foreign Office which was pure Sir Humphrey, explaining why it was not possible not least because it was not clear which government department would be the lead and no government department wanted any other department to interfere in their work. The real nub of the issue was a fear that even discussing children's rights would imply giving extra competences to the EU.

It is this defensive suspicious approach which is at the heart of the UK's attitude to the EU. We constantly fear giving something away or that somewhere there is a trap waiting for us to fall into.

We in the Labour Party have to ask ourselves why it is that Europe is even more unpopular with the electorate now than in 1997, when the most pro European government in recent times was elected. Part of the answer lies in suspicion that Europe is "over there", an element of foreign policy, nothing to do with a domestic agenda. Add to that Alastair Campbell's dictum that "there are no votes in Europe" and you see why ministers prefer to keep it at arm's length, hoping it will go away. It will not. Rather the anti-European debate will become more strident and dominate public debate in a way which is totally disproportionate.

We have to change the nature of the debate. We need to develop a narrative which shows that the EU is an essential part of the governance of Britain. We cannot confront the challenges ahead without local, national and European strategies. We have to stop being frightened by Europe and embrace it as an essential element of winning the fight for Britain's future. If we do not, we will lose control of the European agenda and we will find ourselves fighting to keep Britain in the EU.

Gary Titley, leader of the Labour Party in the European Parliament, spoke at the Fabian Society last night

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