Labour Switches to Supporting EU

The Labour Party converted to a pro-European policy during the 1990s under the leadership of Neil Kinnock and then John Smith. Neil Kinnock favoured membership of the EEC and later served as vice president of the EU Commission. John Smith had defied the Labour whip in 1971 to vote in favour of membership of the EEC.

The defection of major Labour Party figures to the Social Democratic party had posed an electoral challenge. The trade union movement moved to support EU integration. The incorporation of social and economic rights into the EU treaties assisted in this regard. The perceived failure of socialism in one country in France under the first François Mitterrand’s government led to a more centrist consensus.

The divisions over Europe in the Conservative party provided somewhat of an open goal during Labour’s fourth successive period of opposition from 1992 to 1997.

Following the early death of John Smith in 1994, he was succeeded as Labour Party leader by Tony Blair. His speeches to party conference contained distinctly positive messages about Europe. The so-called New Labour period from the mid-1990s to 2010 under the leadership of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown instituted reforms in the party and endorsed a broadly free-market approach to economics.

Labour Back in Goverment 1997

Its manifesto New Labour, New Life for Britain, was published in 1996. It emphasised modernisation and change and the so-called third way, rejecting left-right politics. The Labour Party under Tony Blair was elected with 418 MPs to 165 for the Conservative party in May 1997 ending a period of 18 years in opposition.

New Labour with successive large majorities leaving its own smaller Eurosceptic wing isolated was broadly supportive of European Union developments during its term of office from 1997 to 2010.New Labour quickly accepted the Maastricht treaty’s social chapter, which was incorporated in the Amsterdam Treaty in 1997.

During its time in office, four major treaty reforms were agreed (three ratified) during a period of unprecedented enlargement of the European Union. A European security and defence policy was agreed. The UK supported EU enlargement culminating in institutional reforms in the Nice Treaty. For the first time in a generation, the UK was not at the centre of the most disputed parts of the Nice negotiations.

Chancellor Gordon Brown announced in October 1997 the principle that a successful single currency within the single European market would be of benefit to Europe and Britain. There was no constitutional objection to joining. A commitment had been given to hold a referendum on membership.Chancellor Brown set out a five-part economic based test which should be satisfied before the UK could join the euro. Ultimately the assessment in June 2003 concluded that several of the tests were not yet met.

The UK Labour government was broadly supportive of emergent policies and treaty reforms including those in relation to justice and home affairs and construction of a European security and defence policy. In justice and home affairs, the UK government continued its pragmatic approach securing opt-outs from Schengen arrangements introduced into the treaties by the Amsterdam Treaty. The UK could also opt into policies in the justice and home affairs area. For example, it opted into the provisions of the Schengen agreement on police and judicial cooperation.

The European security and defence policy were aimed at giving the EU the ability to conduct peacekeeping operations and mobilise a rapid reaction military force. It was formulated in the context of the Kosovo crisis of 1999 and the realisation that a rapid reaction force was needed to support EU foreign policy.

The Second Labour Government

The 2001 Labour Party manifesto included the goal of leading economic reform in Europe. Labour made a case for making the EU competitive, supporting enlargement and developing EU defence capabilities for cases where NATO decided not to take action.

The second Blair Labour government in 2001 to 2005 was beset by the aftermath of the September 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq that followed. The response to the attacks and in particular the proposed Iraqi invasion cause divisions between the UK (and certain other member states) which supported the invasion, and France Germany and other states which were opposed.

Over the following years, the Iraqi invasion was shown to be based on highly questionable and arguably concocted intelligence. After the initial toppling of Saddam Hussein, the unfolding and ongoing wars in Iraq appeared to be a grave strategic blunder. Tony Blair lost much of his popularity, never to recover it.

The proposals for a European constitution were formulated in this period. Tony Blair decided in April 2004 that the government would put the EU’s forthcoming constitutional treaty to approval by referendum. Ultimately the constitution was abandoned following defeats in referenda in France and the Netherlands. The constitution was resurrected in a more modest form in the Lisbon treaty which was not put to a referendum in any country other than Ireland.

The Third Labour Government Blair to Brown

The 2005 Labour Party manifesto confirmed the proposal to put the constitutional referendum to a referendum and committed to support it. It promised to promote EU membership for Turkey the Balkans and other Eastern European states during the forthcoming presidency. It proposed a common sense policy on the euro and the continued need to meet Gordon Brown’s five tests.

Despite fading popularity, Tony Blair was elected for a third term in May 2005 with a reduced parliamentary majority of 65. The 2005 UK presidency followed, during which significant progress was made on the services directive, the reformed working time directive and an agreement on financing the 2007 2013 EU budget cycle, including a reduction in the UK rebate due to its increased relative GDP per capita.

Gordon Brown had been pressing to take over the leadership for some time and succeeded Tony Blair as Prime Minister on 27 June 2007. During his first six months as Prime Minister, the Lisbon treaty was a dominant issue, and Brown felt he had to emphasise the concessions from other states in agreeing the treaty in order to demonstrate that the referendum which Tony Blair had promised was not required.

He was much criticised for failing to attend the signing of the treaty in 2007 which was attended by all other European heads of government. The criticism continued that the UK had no mandate to sign the treaty without approval in a referendum.

Gordon Brown’s time on government was dominated by the global financial crisis, which saw the collapse of major banks and financial institutions throughout Europe and threatened the breakup of the Euro. The crisis led to economic contraction to an extent which had not been seen since the great depression in the 1930s. The fragility of the euro seemed to vindicate the decision of the UK to remain outside the single currency.


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