All eyes on Labour’s EU stance after Corbyn win
British party’s new leader could inspire a wave of left-wing euroscepticism in bloc
Jeremy Corbyn outside his home in north London. Photograph: Ben Pruchnie/Getty Images
Europe minister David Lidington was in Brussels this Tuesday, where he met European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker and the commission’s second-in-command Frans Timmermans for an update on the British renegotiation.
A ruling from the European Court of Justice on Tuesday was a mixed bag – the Luxembourg court upheld claims by Britain and Germany that certain benefits could be withheld from unemployed migrants, but it warned that expelling foreign nationals after a certain period may contravene EU law.
The election of the 66-year-old former backbencher who voted against Britain’s membership of the European Union in the 1975 referendum has raised question marks over the stance of Labour ahead of the referendum on EU membership due to take place before the end of 2017.
The instalment of Corbyn – who was first returned to Westminster in 1983 – harks back to an era of Labour euroscepticism.
That was the year when the Labour Party, under Michael Foot, pledged to withdraw from the European Union in its election manifesto, a position that was to be radically reversed in future decades, most notably during the Blair years.
The Corbyn victory has reignited the possibility of a resurgent left-wing British euroscepticism at a delicate time in Britain’s relationship with Europe.
It also raises the intriguing prospect of the left in Britain seizing control of an agenda that has been the sole preserve of the right in recent times.
Certainly, the Europe question has been the most decisive issue for Corbyn in the first few days as opposition leader as he tries to consolidate his party.
He has refused to clarify if he will campaign for Britain to remain within the EU, arguing that he would first await the outcome of the renegotiation talks.
As the new shadow chancellor John McDonnell put it: “We want to see what Cameron’s package of negotiations are, and then we’ll take a decision on whether or not we need to negotiate our own package.”
The question has been complicated further by suggestions that Labour may campaign to leave if Cameron fails to safeguard workers’ rights enshrined in EU legislation such as the working time directive.
Though Corbyn steered clear of the Europe question in his much-anticipated speech to the Trades Union Congress in Brighton on Tuesday, the decision by the trade union to recommend a British exit should Cameron negotiate a new deal that waters down workers’ rights will increase pressure on the Labour leadership to follow suit.
The high-profile former shadow business secretary, Chuka Umunna, has refused to serve under Corbyn.
“I cannot envisage any circumstances where I would be campaigning alongside those who would argue for us to leave,” he said.
“Jeremy has made it clear to me that he does not wholeheartedly share this view.”
Lord Falconer, reappointed as shadow justice secretary, indicated he could resign: “If the Labour Party adopts a position which says we might leave the EU and might argue against it, then of course my position would become impossible at that point.”
There are some reports that up to 100 Labour MPs could rebel on the issue.
The uncertainty over Labour’s position now means the only British party with an unequivocal pro-EU position is the Liberal Democrats, now an insignificant presence on the political landscape following its disastrous election in May.
The Corbyn question also leaves Cameron in a tricky position.
Having already said he will campaign to keep Britain in the EU, he could be faced with the prospect of the opposition leader leading the eurosceptic agenda, leaving the prime minister to defend continued membership to the electorate and to his own eurosceptic party members.
Although the signs are that it won’t come to that, uncertainty about Labour’s commitment to the EU will do nothing to help the pro-European agenda as the British electorate prepares for a crucial vote on its future.