Labour and the Lib Dems must get behind EU reformby Christopher Howarth / May 20, 2013 / Leave a comment
How should the other parties respond to the Conservatives’ EU referendum bill? Developments in the EU raise important questions: how can the UK find a role for itself in an EU increasingly dominated by the politics of the eurozone? How can the UK align its position as a leading exporter of services with an EU geared around a single market in goods? And above all, how can UK political parties reduce the democratic deficit that has built up over time?
All these issues transcend party politics and should be in the mainstream of UK political debate. For now, however, they remain the exclusive preserve of the Conservative party. While the Conservatives have discussed such concerns as democratic legitimacy and the contents of potential EU reform, the temptation for the Liberal Democrats and Labour has been to sit back and watch.
But this current position cannot last forever. David Cameron has now set out the basics of an EU strategy: attempt reform, renegotiate and then hold a referendum on the UK’s membership after the next election but no later than 2017. The task Cameron has set himself is achieving new terms that the UK public would be happy to endorse. This will be tough but he believes that if pushed, states such as Germany that value the UK’s advocacy of free trade and liberal economics would back reasonable reforms. EU reform could involve issues such as decentralisation, the role of national parliaments and economic liberalisation—the creation of a single market in services to benefit UK exports. He thinks that with these he could then secure an “in” vote. How the other parties respond raises questions for the UK’s position in the EU.
A Labour victory in 2015 might actually be the worst option for those wishing to avoid a UK exit. Not only would Labour come under immense pressure to hold its own referendum, but it could be forced to do so without having attempted or achieved any meaningful reform. Worse, a mid-term (and unpopular) Labour Prime Minister campaigning for an “in” could be faced with a new Conservative leader campaigning for an “out.”
The Liberal Democrats also pose risks for the UK’s place in the EU. Nick Clegg recently told parliament that treaty change is a matter of “when not if” and would trigger a UK referendum. Yet his party has broadly opposed the policy set out by Cameron and failed to offer its own alternative vision of the UK’s role in the EU post the eurozone crisis. Instead it relies on a negative message about the impact of an exit and does not engage with the middle ground of public opinion. This policy could lead to the worst of all worlds: a treaty change dreamt up in the eurozone without UK input and then put to the British people. In such circumstances, they would surely vote for an “out.”
So what should Labour and the Liberal Democrats do? For the moment they can enjoy the spectacle of the Conservatives grappling with these questions, but in the medium term will need to come up with ideas of their own. Labour is hardly likely to advocate joining the euro, but it will have to set out a vision for the EU where non-euro states are equally legitimate and protected from eurozone caucusing.
The Liberal Democrats need to make their minds up on the euro—in 2010, their manifesto included a call to join the single currency. If a referendum comes and reform is not on their agenda, the real binary choice they should present is between staying in and joining the euro, and getting out. The answer to that would be “out.” All the more reason for everyone to drop the party politics and get behind EU reform.