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Posts Tagged ‘Veto’

(written in December 2011 and published in the European magazine in January 2012)

Who would have predicted this time last year that Britain’s relationship with the European Union, normally the preserve of only the most enthusiastic Europhiles and most hardened eurosceptics would feature as one of the most high profile debates of the year at the end of 2011?

Suddenly, the general public is starting to care greatly about this now explosive issue, which could potentially cause a problem for those parties and their leaders who had not given it a whole lot of thought before the last election.

So, how do Britain’s political parties differ on their official positions on the EU? Here, we will examine the websites of the Conservatives, Labour, and the Liberal Democrats, as the three leading parties in the UK today, along with the UK Independence Party, whose vocal commitment to withdrawal from the EU has resonated well with the general public in successive elections to the European Parliament as well as recent opinion polls.

A logical place to start is with the party already responsible for managing Britain’s relationship with the rest of the EU – the Conservatives. They may depend on the coalition with the Liberal Democrats to govern, but David Cameron proved who calls the shots on Europe at December’s now infamous summit.

Their website clearly states that the official position of the Conservative party is to remain an active member of the European Union, but not sanction the transfer of any additional powers without the explicit consent of the public through a referendum. Recent opinion polls suggest, therefore, that a Conservative Britain would refuse to commit itself to continued integration, raising questions over its membership of the EU altogether.

However, the Conservatives’ website also clearly states their belief that Britain’s membership of the EU is essential to effectively responding to the global challenges of international competitiveness, climate change, and poverty. The real question therefore is which is more important to the Prime Minister and his party: working with EU member states and institutions to meet those challenges or honouring their promise to the British people; and what would they do if these two priorities came into direct conflict? Unfortunately, the website doesn’t have an answer to that one.

David Cameron’s response to the Eurozone crisis has done little to clarify matters either. On the one hand, he has consistently called for more decisive action to resolve the crisis, stating that: the stability of the euro is vital to the recovery of the British economy; resolving the crisis requires the ability to make swift decisions; and the current process of every decision being signed off by 27 separate parliaments isn’t working. However, it is also the unequivocal position of Her Majesty’s Government that as far as the UK is concerned: the Eurozone crisis is not our problem; further EU integration is a threat to parliamentary sovereignty; so all future treaties must be approved both by Parliament and by referendum.

Interestingly, the position of the Conservatives’ coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, bears a far closer resemblance to that of the official opposition, the Labour party, in so far as it is possible to discern a specific position that is. It would be far more accurate to say that when it comes to the EU, both agree with each other on the value of our membership of the EU and both disagree with the policies pursued by the Conservative party.

In spite of Labour’s best efforts to hide the fact they hold any position on the EU whatsoever by making no mention of it on their website, Ed Miliband’s condemnation of David Cameron’s veto remains there for all to see. A little more digging will also unveil a recent speech by shadow Foreign Secretary, Douglas Alexander, on the future on Britain’s relationship with its European neighbours, 90% of which is naturally spent re-examining the last 40 years of government policy, conveniently leaving a mere paragraph or two to outline his own vision going forward.

What is left are a series of commitments to: preventing the emergence of a two speed Europe, increasing access to the single market, retaining the social chapter, and increasing co-operation between member states on security policy for the region. All this, Alexander insists, can be achieved within the remit of existing treaties alone, an implicit pledge to match the Tories’ refusal to transfer any new powers to Brussels.

The Liberal Democrats, like the Conservatives, do have a specific section of their website (this has since been removed) devoted to explaining their position, but that is where the similarities end. Indeed this section mostly contains a long list of examples of how our membership of the EU benefits the UK that can basically be described as Labour+. They go into a little more detail though, citing: stricter regulation of the banks, a clampdown on tax evasion, the pursuit of renewable energy, and the defence of the European Arrest Warrant. The closest they come to a policy, since dropping their pledge to take Britain into the Euro, is calling for the UK’s energy supplies to be sourced solely from within the EU and the abolition of the Common Agricultural Policy.

Unfortunately, they stop short of saying if the Union in its current form is adequately equipped to achieve these goals and, if not; under what circumstances they would permit deeper integration in pursuit of them. I guess we’ll have to put that down to editorial oversight for now.

This brings us to the UK Independence Party, more commonly known as UKIP. Perhaps the most ironic thing about their website is that all four pages of their stated policies are so inextricably linked to their commitment to withdraw from the EU that it contains no formal policy on Britain’s membership of the EU itself. Comb through the four pages though and it’s easy enough to identify their key pledges. These include: a referendum on leaving the EU, the establishment of a commission to decide which EU regulations to keep and which ones to abolish, and the replacement of VAT with a local sales tax.

It goes without saying that if policy #1 backfires, #2 and #3 automatically become null and void -or do they? Indeed, the very existence of the party itself seems to be something of a paradox as of course if they actually got their way and successfully led the UK out the EU they would have little reason not to disband.

Perhaps the oddest thing about UKIP though is their strategy of pursuing their ultimate goal by getting elected to the European Parliament. To be sure, participating in the elections is a good way of raising their profile on a relevant issue. It is also politically expedient for a party that has so far failed to make any impact in a national election. What makes less sense is their decision to actually take their seats in the European Parliament, and accept the taxpayer funded salaries and perks that come with them, despite refusing to recognise the legitimacy of the parliament itself. Their defence of this is that they use their presence and their salaries to team up with like-minded euro-sceptics and punch above their weight. Power to them, but once again the paradox strikes as any success they enjoyed would only serve to prove that it is possible to exercise meaningful influence and advance the national interest from inside the EU, fatally undermining one of their most central arguments for withdrawal. Never mind, I guess it’s the thought that counts.

So what does all this tell us about the future of Britain’s relationship with the EU? All parties, except for UKIP, see clear benefits to our continued membership, but are undecided about the costs. Once more political expediency dictates that whichever party holds office take the credit for success and shift the blame for failure. So, benefits are a testament to Britain’s ability to work with its European neighbours and costs are billed as a power grab by ‘Brussels’, that monolithic symbol invoked by governments reluctant to admit they plan to obey a law they helped create. How much attention a party pays to each is a good indicator of where they stand, so at one end of the spectrum, UKIP dwells solely on the costs of membership, while the Liberal Democrats’ policy is essentially a list of all its benefits.

The advantage of what initially comes across as chronic indecisiveness across the three parties most likely to be in the driving seat over the next ten to fifteen years is the flexibility it allows each of them to make decisions on a case by case basis. However, should events overtake us as circumstances push the EU closer to realising their aspiration of ever closer union, they’ll need to come up with a long term vision of the role they want Britain to play, if any at all. I look forward to reviewing each party’s updated website when that time eventually comes.

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Time to stand back, take a deep breath, close your eyes and count to ten.  Now open them.  Do you see anything different?  Thought not.

Cameron’s veto is perhaps the biggest – and best – spin operation in modern politics.  By doing nothing, but saying a great deal, Cameron has united his backbenchers with him against the EU but, sadly, kept us within a ridiculous status quo in the European Union.

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