Response to Cameron’s European Council deal

I thank the Prime Minister for advance notice of this statement. It obviously took him a long time to write it, because I only received it at eight minutes past 3 this afternoon.

The people of Britain now face an historic choice on 23 June on whether to remain part of the European Union or to leave. We welcome the fact that it is now in the hands of the people of this country to decide that issue. The Labour party and the trade union movement are overwhelmingly for staying in because we believe that the European Union has brought investment, jobs and protection for workers, consumers and the environment, and we are convinced that a vote to remain is in the best interests of the people.

In the 21st century, as a country and as a continent—and, indeed, as a human race—we face some challenging issues: how to tackle climate change; how to address the power of global corporations; how to ensure that they pay fair taxes; how to tackle cybercrime and terrorism; how we trade fairly and protect jobs and pay in an era of globalisation; how we address the causes of the huge refugee movements across the world; and how we adapt to a world where people of all countries move more frequently to live, work and retire. All these issues are serious, pressing and self-evidently can be solved only by international co-operation.

The European Union will be a vital part of how we, as a country, meet those challenges, so it is therefore more than disappointing that the Prime Minister’s deal has failed to address a single one of those issues. Last week, like him, I was in Brussels meeting Heads of Government and leaders of European Socialist parties, one of whom said to me—[Hon. Members: “Who are you?”] [Laughter.]No. What they said—[Interruption.] The Conservative party might care to think for a moment about what is going on. One person said to me, and I thought it was quite profound, “We are discussing the future of a continent and one English Tory has reduced it to the issue of taking away benefits”—from workers and children. The reality is that this entire negotiation has not been about the challenges facing our continent or about the issues facing the people of Britain. Indeed, it has been a theatrical sideshow about trying to appease—or failing to appease—half of the Prime Minister’s own Conservative party.

That is not to say that there have not been some worthwhile changes. The red card system to strengthen the hands of national Parliaments is something that we on the Labour Benches have long backed. Indeed, it was in the Labour manifesto for the last general election; it was not in the Conservative manifesto, but we welcome a conversion when it takes place. We also welcome the symbolic amendment on ever-closer union. Britain’s long-standing decision not to join the euro or Schengen has been settled and accepted a long time ago. However, we see the influence of Tory party funders on the Prime Minister’s special status not for Britain but for City of London interests. It is the same incentive that caused his friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer to rush to Europe with an army of lawyers to oppose any regulation of the grotesque level of bankers’ bonuses. It is necessary to protect the rights of non-eurozone states, but not to undermine EU-wide efforts to regulate the financial sector, including the boardroom pocket stuffing in the City of London.

Labour stands for a different approach. That is why our Members of the European Parliament are opposing the dangerous elements of the very secretive Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, which threatened to undermine national sovereignty, push the privatisation of public services, and drive down standards for workers, consumers, the environment and public health. Human rights ought to be part of that treaty. Indeed, I believe they should be a feature of all trade treaties.

Then there is the so-called emergency brake. We support the principle of fair contribution to social security, however, the evidence does not back up the claim that in-work benefits are a significant draw for workers who come to Britain from the European Union. The changes that the Prime Minister has secured do nothing to address the real challenges of low pay in Britain and the undercutting of local wage rates and industry-wide pay agreements. They will not put a penny in the pockets of workers in Britain, stop the grotesque exploitation of many migrant workers or reduce inward migration to Britain.

Will the Prime Minister tell us what discussions he had to get European rules in place to protect the going rate and to stop agencies bringing in cheap labour to undercut workers in Britain while exploiting the migrant force? Did he speak to other EU leaders about outlawing the so-called “Swedish derogation” from the agency workers directive, which threatens to undermine one of the key achievements of the last Labour Government by allowing unscrupulous employers to use temporary agency staff to undercut other workers? Those would have been positive and worthwhile discussions to tackle low pay, reduce in-work benefit costs and protect workers. We must, on all sides, be clear that Britain has benefited from migration—from EU workers coming to work in our industry and in our public services to fill gaps. For example, I think of the thousands of doctors and nurses who work in our NHS, saving lives every day they are at work.

The European Union has delivered protection for workers in Britain. It was Labour that made sure that Britain’s EU membership gave workers rights to minimum paid leave; protection on working time; rights for agency workers; paid maternity and paternity leave; equal pay; anti-discrimination laws; and protection for the workforce when companies change ownership It was Labour, working in partnership with sister parties and unions across Europe, that made sure the Prime Minister’s attempt to diminish workers’ rights was kept off the agenda for these EU negotiations. Labour has supported moves to reduce child benefit to non-resident children as a reasonable amendment, but we also welcome the protection for existing migrants until 2020, so that families have stability of income.

The Prime Minister’s deal includes elements we welcome and others that concern us, but it is largely irrelevant to the choice facing the British people; not one single element has a significant impact on the case we will be making to stay in. We welcome the fact that this theatrical sideshow is over, so that we can now get on with making the real case, which will be put by my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Alan Johnson), who will be leading our campaign. Labour believes the EU is a vital framework for European trade and co-operation in the 21st century. A vote to remain is in the interests of people, not only for what the EU delivers today, but as a framework through which we can achieve much more in the future. But to deliver these progressive reforms that I have referred to, we need to work with our partners in Europe, and therefore we must ensure that Britain remains a member. That is the case we are going to be making—it is for a Europe that is socially cohesive, and a Europe that shares the benefits of wealth and prosperity among all its citizens. That is the case we are making, as the Labour party, as the trade union movement in this country, and we look forward to that public debate.