Much of the traditional British media seems to be wilfully missing the political story that lies behind the attempts to save the Eurozone from itself. The Right wing media is banging a Eurosceptic drum, replete with pictures of assorted loonies burning EU flags. Meanwhile much of the liberal press would rather bury any argument altogether about the future of what is now – undeniably – a ‘two speed Europe’, behind a horribly outdated argument that those who dissent or ask difficult questions, must somehow be ‘little Englanders’.
In the past few days, two Labour politicians have emerged to tell a few home truths. Former Home Secretary, Alan Johnson, in an appearance on ‘This Week’ has called for a referendum on an expected new EU Treaty for fiscal union that is likely to be unveiled in December. Prime Minister, David Cameron and his Chancellor, George Osborne have ruled this out – in the process running a coach and horses through their Manifesto commitments. Meanwhile, Labour's Shadow Chancellor, Ed Balls, speaking on BBC Newsnight from New York, criticised plans for an EU financial transaction tax, while saying he is in favour of an international financial transaction tax. Labour’s Shadow Chancellor has just struck political gold, although it will take a few weeks for the rest of the media to catch up. His intervention causes huge problems for David Cameron and George Osborne who through their own vacuity cannot stop an EU financial transaction tax designed to part empty the offers of the City of London into the Eurozone debt hole. Ed Balls’ case though for an international financial transaction tax is the best bit of news for Socialists in a generation.
The debt crisis in the Eurozone, coupled with the need for urgent closer political and financial integration to save it is a huge issue. In their different ways both Johnson and Balls are picking their way through this minefield. Of course it would have been better had Labour not ordered its MPs into a three lined whip march into the lobbies with David Cameron on the EU Referendum vote (more Labour MPs voted with Cameron than Tory MPs). But as this great drama develops, it is vital that Labour not only acts an Opposition, but also presents coherent arguments that are pro-European, without being necessarily pro the EU bureaucrats who got us into this Single Currency mess in the first place. The late John Smith was a pro-European, who believed that public consent was vital. It is why he asked Labour MPs to vote against the Maastricht Treaty every step of the way, in turn causing terrible problems for John Major’s Government. Ed Miliband should take a leaf out of former Labour leader John Smith’s book. It was certainly not very sensible for him to say, as he did, that those who support an EU referendum are ‘barking’, given that a majority of Labour voters – 61% in the last Guardian newspaper poll – want just that.
Johnson and Balls are thinking and speaking outside of the box, and deserve praise for doing so. I should say that I would have rehearsed some of these arguments in front of the Brussels branch of the Labour Party, having been asked along by one of their members. But I have just been told by their Executive that on reflection they have no speakers slots ‘until the middle of next year’. Since I have been speaking to members of the Brussels branch for over twenty years, and since I know how difficult it is for them to find speakers willing to come over, I can only assume that their heads are firmly inserted in the sand and I have been banned.
Hopefully this attitude isn’t shared elsewhere in the Labour Party, as it is all too reminiscent of some of the older controlling features of the New Labour years. So far, the Left in Britain has been slow to get its head around the crisis in the Eurozone – and the response needed. Johnson, Balls and many of the others who have begun to speak up and offer an alternative are on the right track.
Mark Seddon’s book ‘Standing for Something – Life in the Awkward Squad’ is available here.