Ed Balls must find room for romance amid EU ambivalence
In last weekend's Observer, Ed Balls set out his philosophy of "pro-European realism". As an exercise in political positioning, the piece does the job of placing him squarely in the middle ground – the natural habitat of the politician seeking office. In the context of the immigration debate, he comes across as honest about past mistakes, and clear on the way forward. However, in the wider debate about the UK's relationship with Europe, Balls's remarks follow a familiar path, which should give pause to those of us who support the long-term European project.
I realise that Balls needs to be seen as being at least slightly Eurosceptic (ahem, Euro-realistic) since that's the way the wind of public opinion is blowing. But at the same time, he bluntly states: "I am a strong pro-European." In fact, that is his stated "starting point" as a Labour leadership candidate. Despite that, Balls devotes about three short sentences to the benefits of the EU, with the rest of the article being about the potential downsides.
This particular brand of Euro-ambivalence was a defining characteristic of New Labour's approach to the EU question. Tony Blair told the European parliament that the EU "is a union of values, of solidarity between nations and people … not just a common market in which we trade". Four years later, Gordon Brown claimed he was "proud to be British and proud to be European". Balls amends that slightly: "I know, like most of my fellow citizens, that I am British before I am European." The three statements in succession show a party edging away from the continent.
Despite the occasional sweet-nothings uttered in Brussels, New Labour failed to sell the potential benefits of the EU back in Britain. Their deep reluctance to engage on this question allowed strongly Eurosceptic voices to enthusiastically fill the void, such as Ukip, certain unreconstructed Tories, and their cheerleaders in the rightwing press. Labour never managed to create a real debate around it (and yes, for lack of trying), instead ceding all the ground to the Eurosceptics. It would be a shame if they were to continue in that vein in opposition.
At this point it seems fair to ask: what are the potential benefits of greater EU integration? According to Balls: "Europe is our best platform to win the global argument for an open and fair world." I agree. To ask whether the UK should be in the EU is the same as asking whether the UK should have a role on the world stage in the decades to come. How you answer that question largely depends on what you intuitively believe – personally, I think that the UK, along with the rest of the EU, can and should influence future debates on key global issues such as climate change, nuclear proliferation, or distribution of wealth. There will be no future global role for the UK without further integration into some supranational Euro-entity.
By offering economic benefits to aspiring EU members, the EU is able to demand reforms in return, which can improve the lives of millions of Europeans. The UK should play an active role in that process – despite the "going-to-the-dogs" grumbling, the UK is a highly successful nation, economically and politically. We should strive to ensure that all of Europe attains a minimum living standard comparable to our own.
Balls claims to be a "pro-European of the hard-headed rather than romantic variety". Ok, but there's a place for a bit of romance in this argument too, on both sides. Euroscepticism is fed in large part by the romantic notion of British exceptionalism – in the words of Margaret Thatcher: "God separated Britain from mainland Europe, and it was for a purpose." That was in 1999, and many still hold to the same view now, encouraged by the rightwing press and commentariat.
The nations that make up the British Isles are European. Historically, culturally, geographically, ideologically: the UK is comprised of distinctly European nations and cultures. The story of Britain and the story of Europe have always been intertwined, and not always peacefully. It may be a romantic view, but it seems right and correct that the same joint narrative should be projected into the future, but on a peaceful and co-operative grounding.
Despite being the most pro-EU mainstream party, the Liberal Democrats did not wring any meaningful concessions from their Conservative coalition partners with regards to Europe. The appointment of the historically Eurosceptic William Hague as foreign secretary gives some measure of the Tories' own view on the matter. For these reasons, it is especially important that the Labour party now do what they manifestly failed to do in their 13 years in government: make a clear and strong argument for greater UK participation in the EU.