Manifesto Check: Labour keeps it vague on EU reform

The EU is not top of the agenda in this little book. Stefan Rousseau/PA

The Labour manifesto sets out several ambitions with regard to the EU. First, a clear preference for membership. The case the party makes is largely, though not exclusively, economic. The manifesto argues that more than three million UK jobs are “linked to trade with the European Union”. This is convincing to a point. Certainly, the figure tallies with one produced back in 2000, when a South Bank University report estimated some 3,445,000 jobs in the UK “depend on exports to the EU”. The problem is that no one can know how many of these jobs would disappear in the event that the UK left the union.

The issue here is what EU buffs now refer to as “the counter factual”. What would be the alternative to membership? If Britain negotiated a deal similar to that enjoyed by Norway, then exports might continue pretty much as they are. If, however, Brexit involved exclusion from the single market, the impact on the economy as a whole would, according to most economic studies, be far more serious.

The other part of the case for membership appears in the preceding part of the manifesto dealing with “global challenges”. Here the Labour Party stresses the important role the EU has played in dealing with external threats to Europe from its immediate neighbourhood. There is no easy way to assess this claim, but existing evidence from students of foreign policy strongly suggests that, for all their shortcomings, EU sanctions imposed in response to Russian aggression in Ukraine have been far more effective than anything individual member states could have achieved.

Changing the EU

Above and beyond a defence of membership, the manifesto makes little in the way of pledges about policy towards the EU. There is a vague promise to impose budget discipline on EU spending – but 28 member states are involved in budget negotiations, and one country’s waste is another’s vital interest.

The claim that “we will secure reforms to immigration and social security rules” is ambitious. A Labour government would run into precisely the same difficulty as the current one if it tries to tamper with the right of freedom of movement enshrined in the EU treaty. Tinkering with social security rules is the most that could be expected here.

In contrast to the rhetoric of the Conservatives in government, the manifesto stresses the need to maintain EU level protections for workers.

Finally, the manifesto promises that Labour will “open up EU decision making”. It’s a nice objective, but I can’t help but suspect that practical action will be somewhat lacking from the agenda of a Labour government.

More interesting will be whether genuine steps are taken to bring in a “red-card” mechanism to allow national parliaments to block proposed EU legislation. This is not a pledge – the text merely speaks of arguing in favour of it – but there is considerable support for this idea in several member states, and it might be that Labour MPs try to take this idea forward in the event that a Labour government comes into power.

Again, however, I suspect we should not expect too much. After all, the key to Labour policies on the EU comes at the end of the section on Europe. “Labour’s priority in government will be protecting the NHS and tackling the cost-of-living crisis.” In other words, a vote for us means the political agenda will not be dominated by the EU. In their ideal world, the EU is an issue on which Labour will not have to do much but watch the Conservatives tear themselves apart.

The Conversation’s Manifesto Check deploys academic expertise to scrutinise the parties’ plans.