Why we must not turn our backs on Europe

Labour should pledge a referendum on a single currency as a matter of principle, says Tony Wright, a key adviser to Tony Blair

Tony Wright
Tuesday 02 April 1996 23:02

As the Cabinet struggles to find a form of words on the referendum, Labour looks on in glee. When the Government's end arrives, Europe will be at the heart of the mess. It would be entirely appropriate that an issue which has so dominated this government's life should dominate the circumstances of its demise.

The temptation for Labour is to let the Tories do their worst. This means that we leave them with their visceral divisions on Europe and trail our own idea for a putative referendum but in carefully unspecific terms. We know we have to do enough to avoid the "soft on Europe" charge, especially when Europe itself has started playing the Waiting For Blair game with mounting enthusiasm. So the temptation is to be coyly crafty, flirting with a referendum in a way that will maximise Tory discomfort.

We need to do more than that. The worst reason to embrace a referendum is to continue normal politics by other means, to match a Tory promise. Labour's commitment on this should not be determined by the fudge that the Cabinet finally comes up with. The fact is that we need a referendum on Europe and Labour should say so now.

We need it above all because of what we have been saying about a people's Europe. This kind of Europe can never be constructed as an enterprise of elites. The lesson of Maastricht was that an old way of building Europe had hit the buffers. This should have prompted a period of intense debate about the future of the European project, but it did not. Until now, as the debate over enlarging the community combines with the single currency arguments to show that the old model of European developments is being replaced by a new one.

Those of us who care about the European project should be the loudest in demanding a new vision to be put to the people of Europe. That vision will be neither the hard integrationism of the old Europhiles nor the disengagement of the old Europhobes. The tragedy of the European issue in Britain is that there is a majority position that finds it difficult to express itself.

But it is not just a British issue now; it is a European one. One of the reasons why the single currency causes so much trouble is that it looks like a hangover from the faded Maastricht model of technocratic Europe, rather than the start of a renewal of the European project. That is why a popular vote on it matters.

For Labour, it should also matter because of what we believe about Europe and about conducting politics in a new way. The fact is the European Union will not work if it is a union that people do not want to live in. It needs to enable us to achieve desirable things together than we could not achieve separately.

A referendum requires that people vote for or against a concrete proposition. The elites have to engage with the people. This process is fraught with dangers, certainly, but also has the prize of legitimacy as its reward. And that is what Europe badly needs, an injection of democratic legitimacy.

Labour has staked its claim to be a new kind of party offering a new kind of politics. Old kinds of parties embrace referendums as tactical devices; new kinds of parties embrace them as instruments of democratic principle. We are already offering a referendum on the electoral system. We should be offering a referendum on devolution (and probably will have to once the going gets sticky, which is why it would be much better to promise one now). A clear referendum commitment would certainly trump the Tories. But that would be the worst reason for doing it. The best reason would be because a people's Europe demands it.

The writer is Labour MP for Cannock and Burntwood.

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