Wednesday, 15 May 2013

The Policy Answers to the European Question

In my last post, I set out some context on the main political issue of the moment - Britain's future political and economic relationship with the European Union.

The internal debate within and outside the Conservative Party has dominated the political agenda and the attempts of David Cameron to smear and misrepresent the policies of other parties perhaps illustrates only just how divisive this issue is for his party.

So, where do the parties stand (as I understand it) ?

UKIP: UKIP are committed to withdrawal from the European Union at the earliest opportunity via a referendum. What is much less clear is where they would go from there. Membership of the European Economic Association (EEA) is an option though EEA members generally follow EU guidelines without having any input into those guidelines.

One option might be to petition to join the North American Free Trade Association (NAFTA) and develop that single market. Another might be to remain outside all economic blocs and negotiate separate arrangements with the Eurozone, EEA countries etc. Britain would no longer enjoy the benefits of the free movement of capital and labour within the Single Market and that presumably applies to British people resident in Europe.

The argument from UKIP is that after withdrawal, we would have more control of key areas of domestic policy but we would still presumably seek to uphold internationally-binding agreements and what of law and order issues such as the European Arrest Warrant ?

There's huge confusion over what a vote for withdrawal from the EU would or could mean.

Labour: Ed Miliband made an interesting speech to the Progress Forum last Saturday. The speech was widely and inaccurately reported as stating that Labour were opposed to a referendum on EU membership. Here's the key line:

"It is wrong now to commit to an in/out referendum and have four years of uncertainty and a ‘closed for business’ sign above our country."

I've highlighted the key word. Yes, Labour does not support a referendum on EU membership at the moment (neither does David Cameron) but they've not ruled one out in perpetuity. I suspect the 2015 Labour manifesto will contain a commitment to a referendum on EU membership following a re-negotiation (which will be identical to the Conservative policy)

Conservative: The original re-negotiation strategy came out of David Cameron's celebrated "flounce" in December 2011 which temporarily brought the Tories a popularity boost. After a long period of uncertainty following the emergence of UKIP as a serious protest vote with potential to damage the Conservatives, Cameron came up in March this year with this idea.

Basically, Cameron said that if he won a majority in 2015, he would go to Brussels and re-negotiate Britain's EU membership. He would then return in triumph and seek endorsement via a referendum in 2017. This week's parliamentary activity was in essence to bind that commitment into legislation though the degree to which any future Government's hands could be tied is, to say the least, debatable.

There is a significant minority of Conservative backbenchers (perhaps as many as 120) who want an EU referendum now. This is less to spike UKIP's guns than to actively vote to leave the EU. Both UKIP and the anti-EU Conservatives know their window of opportunity will be closed in 2015 whether Labour wins or the Conservatives are re-elected.

Perhaps the anti-Coalition elements thought they could push Cameron into a referendum commitment before 2015 but they've failed and whether their actions will mollify those of their constituents who are considering voting UKIP remains to be seen.

Liberal Democrat: As with Labour and David Cameron, the Liberal Democrats do not support the idea of a referendum now. In the past, the party has proposed an In/Out referendum but that was from the comfy lounge of Opposition.

The Coalition Agreement recognised the differences in policy between the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives but the Liberal Democrats have always been the far more pro-EU party. That said, the party's Europhilia (as some have described it) has diminished considerably.

Indeed, Nick Clegg has conceded that it's a question of "when, not if" on a referendum so the Liberal Democrat position isn't that far removed from Labour. Yes, there'll be a referendum at some unspecified point possibly or possibly not following a process of re-negotiation.

I note that while polls show an overwhelming desire for a referendum (80%+), the margin of those voting to leave the EU has diminished noticeably and I think the Liberal Democrats are missing a trick in not standing up and articulating more strongly the advantages of membership. Indeed, it's even possible to argue that a re-negotiated package would probably pass a public vote so to assume that there is an overwhelming groundswell of public support against the EU is misplaced.

Yes, the anti-EU forces have made the running in recent times and have powerful media friends to put forward their persuasive yet unsatisfactory arguments and have created a perception of a powerful public pressure to withdraw from the EU (backed by traditional steroeotyping of Europeans and playing to the subconscious images of 1940).

I suspect the main parties will offer very similar positions ahead of the 2015 General Election with UKIP standing alone. The irony (and if I see it, I suspect Nigel Farage does too) is that a strong UKIP
performance will likely deliver a Labour Government with an overall majority which will consign UKIP to the margins and leave them facing a vengeful Tory Party in opposition.

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