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Friday, October 26, 2012

Never mind the Tories – What will Labour do about Europe?

Over on the Guardian's Comment is Free section, we argue:

When talking to diplomats, policymakers and journalists from around the EU, by far the most common question I get is: "What do you think the Tories will do on Europe?"
That question may soon have to be revised. It may not be the Tories, but the Labour party that will decide Britain's place in Europe – possibly even pushing it out altogether.
Much can happen before 2015, but there is a possibility that the Tories could suffer defeat at the polls at the next elections. Then Brussels' biggest fear – a sweeping Tory-led renegotiation of the UK's EU membership terms – will not materialise, at least not any time soon. Instead, either as part of a Lib-Lab pact or majority government, the ball will be in Labour's court. So what will Labour do?
In its 2015 election manifesto, the Conservative party could well promise renegotiation followed by a referendum on the result. It's far from set in stone, but increasingly likely. Tory scepticism on Europe as an issue may not allow David Cameron to get away with less. Labour effectively has two choices in how to respond:
Option one: Gamble on Europe not being an electoral issue.

The thinking is that the EU always ranks low on the list of voters' concerns. National elections are never fought over Brussels. This is only partially true. Europe is a low priority if presented as a single issue – but the fact is, it's not. To varying degrees, it permeates other issues such as the economy, general trust in politicians and, most importantly, immigration (which consistently ranks high) – something that is likely to be established by the current government's "balance of competences" review. Labour could try ducking the question in a campaign, but if the Tory party manages to successfully tap into the public's growing hostility towards the EU status quo – and with the eurozone's demands for greater integration unlikely to go away – it could really hurt Labour.
Option two: Promise a referendum of their own and so neutralise the Tories' pledge.

The Labour party is unlikely to promise a public vote on a renegotiated EU deal – in large parts, they have already rubbished the idea – so it will have to be a straight in/out vote. The plan would be to call a referendum shortly after the elections, campaign for a yes, win the vote and move on to other business.
This would be a massive gamble. The experiences of François Hollande in France and Mariano Rajoy in Spain show that political honeymoons are rare in today's EU politics. And heaven knows what Europe and the British economy will look like in 2015/2016, with the Greek bailout package set to expire, for example. If the referendum coincides with, say, a major new drive for more EU integration, with fresh demands put on the UK; and with a large number of Tories campaigning to leave (more likely in opposition), the British public may be pushed over the edge. It would then be Labour that unintentionally pulls the UK out of Europe.
There may be some options in between, such as promising a referendum on forthcoming treaty changes – or pledges to pursue some milder reforms – but that will not sound overly convincing. And even leaving aside the referendum issue, Europe could hit Labour like a steam train: in a few years' time, the free-standing "fiscal treaty" is meant to be incorporated into the EU treaties. Will Labour nod that through, given that it effectively codifies the Bundesbank-style austerity, much criticised by Ed Balls and co? Will it veto Germany's plans for a fiscal discipline commissioner, if they materialise? How will it relate to the evolving eurozone banking union and potential accompanying treaty changes? Will it tear up the coalition's EU "referendum lock"? The more the eurozone agrees to do in common, the harder it will be for the UK to stand still. In fact, the eurozone crisis means that the status quo is no longer an option for Britain.
The problem is that, fundamentally – and much like the Tory leadership itself – it does not yet appear that Labour knows what it wants for the UK in the multi-tier Europe that is developing. The previous Labour administration's policy of simply sitting in the "euro waiting room" and hoping the public would come along for the ride is no longer credible. However, the wing of the party that said it always opposed euro membership has yet to articulate what its alternative plan is.
There are a lot of good and clever people on Labour's front benches. So far, it has suited Labour to treat Europe as a coalition piñata. Not for much longer. Labour now has the chance to develop a coherent and positive European vision and a plan of its own – designed around a flexible model for EU co-operation, in which Brussels does less in the UK, but does it better. Bank on the status quo or Tory splits, and both the party – and Europe – may be in for some unexpected surprises.


Rik said...

1. Elections are probably still far away in political terms. Mr Ed not really being PM material is a point to consider for them. But not completely unlikely he will pick it up (play a little bit less the organic soybean eating no it all highschool teacher would already do a lot of good).
So even if they are now ahead in the polls there is a substantial degree of uncertainty. They are ahead but a lot can still be messed up.
2. How will Europe develop. Basically the closer you get things with Euro the more likely the worse it will get.
The coming years EU is simply bad news and the Euro even more. Economically bad zero growth overall at best. Financially you have to stay away or you end up paying for some bust Southeners.
Politically hardly a block you want to be associated with. Electoral bad news highly uncool and permanent bad news.
The EZ and likely as a consequence the EU will however start further integration. Simply in no way benificial for the UK, whichever government there might be.
3. A referendum will be difficult to avoid. Probably the last thing any government wants is an out vote on their watch.
4. In this respect I donot see so much difference with the Conservatives tbo. Labour doesnot have activist- (except re foxes and the normal streetriots of course)backbenchers and not that much trouble from the UKIP. But for the rest it is the same.
5. Pro-Europe campaigning probably pretty stupid. Would send a lot of votes back to the Conservatives most likely and anyway very likely unpopular.
6. Avoiding the subject also looks not possible it will be one of the biggies (especially as 'your' Dave will likely campaign with that as a major item) plus the UKIP.
7. The issue should be off the agenda after a referendum as well. My idea is that a proper reneg gives a) the best chance of an remain in'; b) likley the best situation to work from in a next term and c) best chance the topic is from the agenda for some time. All points in favour of Labour as well as the Conservatives.
8. Going for a plain vanilla referendum on the current set up increases the chance of an out considerably. If Labour wants to avoid that they will have to use imho the same strategy as the Conservatives go for change that the UK voters want.
9. Seen some opinion polls if one of the 2 big parties would go for it you likley have a majority 'out' vote. Well the 2 are not going for that but the next best thing is a complete reneg. Which seen the polls on in-out would likely also have a majority and probably even a substantial one. Also on the Labour side of the spectrum.
10. My idea would be not let the Conservatives run away with what likely is a pro for them in several ways. Take roughly the same position.
More however from a democratic angle (less to avoid UKIP and keep nasty backbenchers happy).
Try to speed the thing up so a referendum can be done before the election (so negative fall out is not on your watch if you win the election).
And campaign around the economy and the cuts. Imho no long term success but probably good enough to win next election. The weekly Conservative scandal doesnot really interest people most people are afraid of the future and want a better story or a story they better like than that from the other side.

Bugsy said...

Rik - Too much too consider for most people, the OUT bandwagon is rolling and will get bigger. The Eurozone crisis is keeping 135 million people under the thumb of Brussels and Germany and in poverty and will get worse. The EU is terrified of losing the UK contribution, that is the only reason they tolerate us.

Not giving a referendum will be political suicide for both main parties and could lead to major chaos at the election, hung parliament with UKIP and perhaps Greens holding the balance.

Rik said...

As you say a referendum will be very difficult to avoid for both parties. Conservatives are forced by the rise of the UKIP. And as the EU over the whole line is as popular as the plague in the UK Labour will have to follow. EU likley being bad to very bad news for the coming years even in general terms.
If one of the big parties gives an alternative like the Conservatives now the chances that there will be a massive move to 'In as it is' are nearly zero (probably see more moving to out/in but with huge reneg camp.
That is for the electoral issue.

But assuming that labour wants to govern the UK after next election they simply cannot allow themselves by being caught with their pants down and have to face an "out', especially early in their period.
Simply too risky for any government. There are imho only 2 realistic (controlled) options:
-go for a reneg within the EU;
-go for an exit with properly negotiated new treaty for the future (keep free-trade area).
Both will take a lot of time.
Another option will be simply too risky. 'In as it is' as the population of the UK might pull the plug out and "Out" as trade relations would very likely suffer enormously.

That is why I donot think Labour will for their own interst deal very different with this than Cameron does now. And making a 180 on acrucial issue like this makes you completely uncredible. All though Cameron has the extra pressure of the rise of the UKIP.
But at the end of the day Labour cannot afford (or manage) an EU-out result from a referendum in say 2015, anymore than the Conservatives can.

Like you say the whole of Europe has seen the rise of so called populist parties (populist often as in: as unrealistic as what some mainstream parties like Hollande's promise, but on different topics if you ask me, but nevertheless). Greens might put themselves on the map in the UK and especially UKIP and mess up the whole system. Imho the UK system works as most people vote for the 2 main parties if you get 5-6 (next to some regionals) with a decent percentage of the vote the strangest things can happen (majority with 20-25% of the vote or weird coalitions necessary etc). It is in the selfinterest of the 2 major parties to try to avoid that. Which as you say with how the UK population looks at things simply means an in/out referendum on EU membership.

Patrick Barron said...

The big picture is that a federalist Europe is a very bad idea. Unfortunately,the "European Idea" has been changed from one of cooperation among sovereign nations--the de Gaulle vision--to that of a unified central state that would meet the approval of Hitler and Stalin. (REALLY!) Only UKIP sees the EU for what it has become and for where the EU elite want to take it. The UK should get out NOW. It is simply being nursed along to be plundered by abominations like the financial transaction tax.

Rollo said...

If one party or the other gave a contracturally binding commitment to having an IN OUT referendum, and agreeing to obey the will of the people, then that party would win hands down. There is no difference of principle by any of the 3 parties; they are all run by the political class of schoolboys who go to Uni then into politics and then climb the greasy pole, pulling down the trousers of those above, elbowing those at the same level, treading on the fingers of those below; meanwhile ignoring what the electorate want. So, clearly, IN OUT would get the vote. The only trouble: if one offered it, the others would, too, and we'd be left with the same slimy creeps we have now.