Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Miliband says there’s no place like home

It would appear David Miliband decided to click his ruby slippers three times yesterday in Berlin, definitively turning down the new position of EU ‘foreign minister’ and opting to return home to a troubled government in the UK.

Of course this could all just be a ruse to take him out of the ‘frontrunner’ status, a notorious handicap when it comes to getting EU appointments. But all indications are that his conversation with the head of Europe’s socialist group yesterday in Berlin was genuine – he will not take the new high representative position if offered. Given that it appears Tony Blair is now out of the running for the position of EU president, it looks like there will be no Brits filling either of these two new roles. Given the UK’s lack of participation within the EU, there will be many on the continent who feel this result is appropriate.

Miliband had gained increased attention after a remarkably pro-Europe speech he delivered two weeks ago, saying the UK needed to abandon its ‘hubris and nostalgia’ and engage fully with the EU, working to reform it and make it strong. Given that this kind of talk is so rarely heard from a senior British politician, many Socialists in Europe were so elated they immediately began pushing for Miliband to take the foreign minister post.

However there was always some trouble with this logic. Miliband’s words were so encouraging precisely because he was such a senior politician delivering a pro-Europe speech in the UK. Take him out of the UK, and the beneficial aspect of that is nullified. David Miliband may have a moderately high profile in Britain, but its doubtful that his presence in Brussels would have focused British media attention on the EU in the way that Tony Blair being there would have. As I’ve written about before, a posting to Brussels is often considered a ‘banishment’ in the UK, and politicians sent there quickly disappear from the British media landscape. Having a pro-European in Brussels rather than in Westminster won’t do much to change the UK’s attitude toward the EU.

There was also a question on the mind of continental Socialists as to what sort of benefit he would bring for them as foreign minister. Though New Labour is part of Europe’s socialist grouping it is certainly at the more centrist, Atlanticist end of the spectrum. Miliband is after all a committed Blairite, which taints him with the brush of the Iraq War legacy. There were concerns that an EU foreign policy under Miliband would too often acquiesce to the plans of the United States, rather than offering a strong alternative. Then again, given that the governments of Europe will be dominated by conservative parties next year, it’s difficult to see how a far-left Socialist foreign policy chief could bring Europe to a consensus.

Miliband is still viewed by many as the last great hope for the dying Labour party, and there will be many within Labour who are relieved at today’s news. Many would have seen Miliband’s move to Brussels as a rat fleeing a sinking ship, given that Labour is almost guaranteed to lose the upcoming UK general election next year. In fact there are many who think Miliband is Labour’s last hope, and that the only way the party can win the upcoming election is if he leads a revolt against Gordon Brown and stands as Labour’s leader instead.

Given the widespread loathing of the British Conservative party in Europe these days, there were probably many on the continent from both the left and the right who thought their best hope was to keep Miliband in the UK and hope that he can somehow deal a miracle defeat to David Cameron. Of course if Labour does lose and Miliband becomes the head of the opposition, it's hard to see what benefit his pro-European views will bring then. It's all a bit up in the air, but one thing is certain - you haven't heard the last of David Miliband.

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