The ‘European Pivot’

A speech held by Tristram Hunt MP at the ECFR event The UK’s foreign policy post-referendum: One hundred years of solitude? on 8 June 2016.

This speech was held by Tristram Hunt MP at the ECFR event on 8 June 2016:

“Thank you to the European Council for Foreign Relations for inviting me to share my thoughts today.

We are just 15 days from the biggest decision the people of this country will make for a generation. Our chance to decide whether we want to walk away from the biggest single market in the world, and confront the seismic shock to our economy that would bring.

And so the referendum is profoundly important on its own terms – and with polls suggesting Leave has the advantage, these are truly worrying times.

Yet it also presents us with a desperately needed opportunity to rethink how Britain’s priorities abroad should be pursued. And consider what Britain’s role in the world should be in the 21st Century.

My position on this is straightforward; Britain’s interests are best served by taking a leadership role as a member of the European Union.

By leading, not leaving.

So I believe that the final fortnight of this campaign must see far greater prominence given to the progressive, Labour case for European reform.

But – more than that – we must use the Referendum and its aftermath to make a powerful case for a ‘European pivot’ as the best approach to furthering the cause of western, liberal, democracy in these uncertain times.

The thesis behind this proposition is simple. It starts by naming any of the great external foreign policy challenges Britain might face this decade:

Islamic extremism. Russia. Climate change. Trade Wars. Mass migration.

In each and every case the fundamental question must be this:

Is it easier to solve these problems on our own or through co-operation with our European allies?

So: Is it better to stand up to Russia glowering towards the Baltic States alongside Germany and France, or can Britain stand alone?

Will managing migration, controlling Europe’s frontier borders and alleviating the human suffering of refugees best be achieved through a collective European response or individual member state action?

And would a European Union response to ‘trade war’ policies like dumping carry more clout than a unilateral British one?

The proper ‘socialist’ response seems instinctive. After all, Labour is and always has been an internationalist party. Co-operation is our gospel.

Not just in foreign policy either – collective action for the common good is an essential component of our political purpose.

“By the strength of our common endeavour we achieve more than we achieve alone”.

Nevertheless, we should acknowledge that there are still some perfectly respectable left-wing arguments for ‘Brexit’.

The Bennite arguments about democracy and sovereignty; about crony capitalism; about the impact of free movement on wages; and about the callous treatment of countries like Greece which dare to seek a different response to the economic crisis.

The Labour Party cannot sweep such arguments under the carpet.

But in committing itself to a reformed European Union, the Labour Party has taken a position which refuses to allow these trends to fan nationalist hysteria and threaten liberal institutions across the continent.

In short, unlike the Brexiteer absolutists, we have chosen politics.

Because if we want to transform capitalism for the digital age…

If we want peace, national security, economic justice, fairer taxation, sustainable development, human rights and liberal democracy to triumph over authoritarian populism…

…then we have to place out faith in the crucible of international co-operation.

To campaign for collective European solutions to collective European problems. And use our alliances and influence, in the spirit of internationalism, to build a better future for all.

For me that is the great, optimistic, and progressive argument for renewing our European Union membership.

But no sensible debate about membership of the EU can ignore the need for reform.

Because the idea that the economy is rigged in favour of an elite is not a fringe view.

The idea that mainstream politics is failing to serving the interests of working people is not a fringe view.

The idea that the powerful are unable to empathise with the concerns of the powerless is not a fringe view.

It is the former industrial communities in places like Stoke-on-Trent – with high numbers of jobs in manufacturing and EU-export focused businesses vulnerable to tariffs – that benefit from membership of the single market.

Yet it is also these communities, with our skills challenges, low wages, and high levels of worklessness, where faith in mainstream politics and the European ideal is at its lowest ebb.

We must acknowledge that Europe as it stands needs to work much more effectively for these communities. And there are three areas we should focus on.

First: trade.

I support free trade. It is not just the economic case. There is also the fact that free, open, trade policies promote peaceful diplomatic relations between sovereign nations too.

But proper free trade does not mean corporatism. The Labour movement will not be beguiled by promises of growth if the only beneficiaries are multinational corporations – as we have seen with concerns about TTIP and the Investor State Dispute Settlement.

And if – as it appears – China is granted Market Economy Status then the EU must ensure it retains tough safeguards that prevent the loss of anti-dumping powers.

Because such a move would threaten the steel, ceramics, renewables and other manufacturing industries that so many communities depend on.

Free trade is the best option. But the rules of trade must be set with the interests of working people in mind.

And if countries are not prepared to play by the rules then Europe must stand up and show its clout.

Second: devolution and industry.

As they stand, the EU state aid regulations are often a barrier to the kind of ‘entrepreneurial state’ we need to develop. They curtail a modern, strategic approach to industrial policy.  

Do you know, if you want to transfer ownership of state goods to local authorities then that can contravene current state aid regulations?

And certainly much of Germany’s admirable stakeholder economy would be immediately vetoed were it proposed now.

This has to change.

We need a new settlement which balances fair competition with a democratic government’s ability to take strategic industrial decisions.

Three: free movement of people.

Free movement is a wonderful, liberal idea. And it can bring significant macroeconomic benefits, as we have seen in parts of the UK.

However, there is clear evidence that unrestricted mass migration can also be bad for inequality, bad for working class wages, and bad for social cohesion too.

And it is an issue that has destroyed – absolutely destroyed – loyalty towards the traditional centre-left in much of Northern Europe.

So we need an immigration policy which welcomes new migrants, but admits we need more powers to manage the impact.

We need – as Gordon Brown has suggested – an EU-wide Migration Solidarity Fund so that the EU supports public services in countries like Britain which are experiencing the fastest change.

And we need a renewed focus on boosting vocational education, skills and apprenticeships.

This country has the best workers in the world – but our education system lets too many people down, creating skills gaps which leave businesses no choice but to look abroad.

However, we also need some control over the flows of people coming to this country.

So we should strengthen the UK position on EU expansion by considering vetoing the accession of new member states unless specific controls on the free movement of labour are included as a condition of entry.

We need a balanced and flexible policy on immigration at an EU level – one that mitigates the negative impact of mass migration on our communities, while still reaping the benefits for our economy.

My vision is for a confident, outward-facing Britain at the heart of a reformed EU.   

Whether it is our military, our diplomatic corps, our language, or our BBC, Britain’s history and traditions all point towards a country that takes an active role in the world.

An outward looking nation at ease with its status as a bastion of western, liberal, democratic ideals.

This is what many voices in the Vote Leave campaign completely fail to understand. They say, ‘Let the world take care of itself’.

But the modern world simply doesn’t allow for such detachment.

Even at the supposed high points of our glorious past, Britain was deeply enmeshed in Continental alliances.

Victory at the Battle of Waterloo was the product of a British-Prussian-Dutch-Swedish-Russian alliance.

When Salisbury was accused of pursuing a policy of ‘splendid isolation’ in the late 19th century, the British government was, in fact, firmly committed to various European partnerships. 

And surely by now we must have learnt the chequered, destabilising lessons of British retreat from the Continent.

Understand, as the historian Niall Ferguson has argued, that our isolationism is “itself a trigger for continental disintegration”.

And yet I actually believe there are some on the Brexit benches who understand this perfectly. 

Michael Gove seems to believe that applying the “creative destruction” logic of his school reforms to an entire continent is somehow an act of great liberal statesmanship.

I could not disagree more.

In fact, I think it indicates a chilling lack of judgement.  

Europe is facing Russian militarism for the first time since the Cold War. Fascism, red in tooth and claw, for the first time since the fall of Franco.

Brexit as Gove and his ilk see it is not a “liberation movement” for the people of Europe – it is the act of a deranged relative pouring petrol over an already smouldering fire.

To walk away from Europe now, in its latest hour of need, would be an entirely self-defeating dereliction of our duty and history.

And – as much as I understand the frustrations that are driving much of the Brexit vote – I don’t believe the British people actually want such a clichéd ‘Anglosphere’ vision.

A vision of a Britain unshackled from those burdensome European obligations and finally free to realise its turbo-capitalist destiny.

A country that is reduced to an isolated, off-shore financial hub like Singapore, Dubai or Hong Kong.

What they want is to be part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and a strong, progressive force on the world stage.

The argument coming from the heart of Vote Leave is the politics of defeat and the philosophy of decline.

Britain shouldn’t be leaving Europe. Britain should be leading Europe.

Reshaping our continent’s destiny towards a more open, liberal, democratic, freer, fairer, stronger and more socially just future.

But to achieve this will not only require a vote for Remain; it will also require a substantive shift in our foreign policy orthodoxy.

Britain needs to execute a ‘European Pivot’.

There is no avoiding the fact that Britain’s standing in the world is much diminished since the Labour Party left office in 2010.

In 2008 Britain under Gordon Brown was leading the entire world’s response to the global financial meltdown.

But by 2014 our diplomatic retrenchment was so complete that we had no seat at the table during the Normandy Group discussion about the Ukraine.  

For decades our foreign policy was animated by Winston Churchill’s idea of Britain at the juncture of three interlocking circles.  

In Churchill’s day they were Europe, the Anglosphere and the British Empire; now we might understand them as Europe, the wider West and everywhere else.

But a combination of ideological disdain for Europe and a misguided desire to distance Britain from the US saw David Cameron and William Hague rip this orthodoxy up.

Their naïve bilateralism promised a new ‘Neo-Elizabethan’ era of foreign affairs – a return to the high seas and a buccaneering Britain free to cut deals with all and sundry.

Furious, globe-trotting bilateralism with the BRICS would magically take the place of our deepest and most important global relationships.  

As a ‘foreign policy,’ it has not stacked up.

In India, Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico, Nigeria and Turkey our exports have flatlined or even decreased.  

And we face far greater external threats than we did in 2010.

America is, at best, pivoting towards the Pacific – and at worst descending into a rash instability;   

Meanwhile, the Breton Woods institutional architecture is showing significant signs of decay.

The UN Security Council is log-jammed even as the Syrian bodies pile higher.

The IMF and World Bank are distrusted by the developing world.

The nuclear non-proliferation treaty is openly flouted by rogue states like North Korea.  

And the World Trade and Health organisations seem paralysed in the face of serious international crises.   

Now, a modern, progressive foreign policy should always seek to be a source for reason and reform when it comes to international institutions.  

It seems a distant dream now – but Labour in office consistently showed what Britain could achieve with the right political will at an international level.

Whether through our global leadership of the Make Poverty History campaign or our determination to pursue the Millennium Development Goals.

But the reality is that it is our membership of the EU which really magnifies British power and influence across the world.

That is the modern Churchillian argument for Europe.

It is not about any romantic fondness for the ‘European project’ or ‘being at the heart of Europe,’ but a more clinical realisation of Britain’s geo-political concerns.

At the core of this European re-engagement should be a renewed commitment to the tri-lateral diplomatic relationship with France and Germany.

Because when we actually commit to leading in Europe – as with the Single Market, the eastward expansion or, more recently, our long-running action to tackle Somalian piracy – then we show that how our best of both worlds approach can deliver impressive results.  

This is the path I believe we need to take.

Not a half-hearted vote for Remain, but a proper commitment to leading in Europe.

And this means a pivot towards a ‘Europe First’ approach to British foreign policy priorities.

The pragmatic choice to help face down our continent’s collective challenges, and secure Britain’s place in the world.

So let’s engage with Europe and promote a progressive, reform agenda.

Because to imperil our shared European values, to hasten their retreat, can never be in the interests of the Labour movement.

So on June 23rd I will vote for ‘Remain’.  

And I hope my country does likewise. Thank you.”

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.

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