Thursday, 15 April 2010

The UK election and the EU – a stark choice

It’s really an incredible thing to witness – British elections apparently don’t slowly emerge and gather pace, but instead arrive with a loud thud. Last week Prime Minister Gordon Brown called an election, and on Monday the Queen ceremoniously dissolved parliament. Almost on cue, my Facebook feed suddenly lit up with status messages from Brits asking who they should vote for.

It’s strange, because it’s been known for months that the election would be at some point in May. it’s literally the last moment at which Gordon Brown could have called an election since the last one was 5 years ago. But I guess it isn’t ok to start thinking about how you will vote until the Queen tells you to!

This will be the first UK election I will have observed since moving there. The process is extremely different from that in the US. Once the parliament is dissolved, MPs have just a few weeks to rush home to their constituencies to campaign. On 6 May the Brits will go to the polls, and whichever party gets the most votes will be able to appoint the prime minister. But one part of this year’s election will be very American. For the first time ever, the leaders from the three main parties will take place in an American-style TV debate. The first one will air tonight.

For months David Cameron’s Conservative party has enjoyed a double-digit lead in the polls, and the common assumption was that the Tories would sail to an easy victory in the election. But suddenly, last month, their poll lead collapsed. They are now down to just three points above Labour, and experts are now predicting a hung parliament in which no one party has a majority. That would make the third party, the Liberal Democrats (“liberal” is the European equivalent of the American word “libertarian”), a kingmaker. They could enter into a coalition with either Labour or the Tories to put either in power.

I will be watching tonight with keen interest to see what is said about Europe. There is a limit to the differences between Labour and the Conservatives when it comes to their domestic plans – but the differences are huge when it comes to their EU policy. Those differences can be seen in the two parties’ campaign manifestos, released this week.

Pro-Europe vs. Anti-Europe

The Conservative manifesto’s section on the EU is seems openly hostile. While stressing that the Tories would “constructively engage” with the EU, it goes on to say, “The steady and unaccountable intrusion of the European Union into almost every aspect of our lives has gone too far." The Tories make a vow that they will never adopt the Euro, and they promise to amend the 1972 European Communities Act so that it would require a referendum for every transfer of competencies from Westminster to Brussels. This would effectively mean that each of the streamlining measures that the Lisbon Treaty envisages for the future would be put to referendum, which could effectively mean a referendum every year if this vow were applied stringently. However, the Tories do not specify what they mean by ‘transferring power to Brussels’.

The Tories also pledge to return powers over legal rights, criminal justice and employment legislation back to Westminster by negotiating on opt-out. But they do not describe how they would accomplish such a difficult feat. A retroactive opt-out would require the consent of every EU member state.

It is no wonder that the prospect of a Conservative victory next month is causing many other leaders in the EU severe heartburn. Following Cameron’s decision to remove his party from the main European conservative grouping with Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy last year, and his vocal antagonism toward the Lisbon Treaty, he is almost universally reviled in Western Europe by both the centre-left and the centre-right.

Labour’s manifesto, on the other hand, reads, "Our belief is that Britain is stronger in the world when the European Union is strong, and that Britain succeeds when it leads in Europe and sets the agenda for change.” They promise that they will not even consider trying to negotiate opt-outs from EU workers’ rights, saying "we reject any attempt to renegotiate or unravel social rights for the British people". They do not rule out the possibility of joining the euro.

"The poverty of the Tory vision is summed up by their false choice between an alliance with the United States and one with Europe,” writes Labour. “In Europe they are not just isolated, but marginalised, in a tiny group of far-right parties that endorses extreme views and is stuck in climate-change denial.”

The Tories iron-clad guarantee that the UK will never join the euro under a Conservative government is a dangerous one. Every EU member state is required to adopt the euro eventually, except for the UK and Denmark who opted out of this clause in the Maastricht Treaty. Right now the euro is experiencing some turbulence, but if it weathers the economic storm it can be assumed that it will then be full steam ahead for expanding the monetary union. One can envision a scenario where in 5 years all of the new member states have adopted the euro, and the Scandinavian states (including Denmark) have relented and joined as well.

This would leave the UK as the only country in the common market to have a different currency, which would have a destabilizing effect on the economy. Considering the enormous levels of British public debt and speculations that there could be a run on the pound in the next few years, ruling out the possibility of ever joining the euro seems remarkably short-sighted. Last year I even heard from an expert ws predicting that the Tories would have to make moves to adopt the euro in the next five years, under the old "only Nixon could go to China" political adage.

Lib Dems: the kingmakers

So what about the Liberal Democrats? In Brussels the Lib Dems are widely viewed as the most pro-European of the British political parties, and with good reason. Their MEPs are some of the most active and engaged in the parliament, and their leader nick Clegg has been one of the most vocal proponents of the EU. In their manifesto, the Lib Dems write that "European co-operation is the best way for Britain to be strong, safe and influential in the future. We will ensure that Britain maximises its influence through a strong and positive commitment…But just because Europe is essential, that doesn't mean the European Union is perfect. We will continue to campaign for improved accountability, efficiency and effectiveness. Working together, the member states of the EU have a better chance of managing the impacts of globalisation".

The Lib Dem manifesto also calls out the Conservatives for what they have called misleading rhetoric about a Lisbon Treaty referendum. According to them, because the Lisbon Treaty was an essential group of reforms made necessary after the new states joined, a ‘no’ vote in a referendum would have been tantamount to a ‘no’ vote on being in the EU. Because the EU remains highly unpopular in the UK, a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty would almost certainly have resulted in a ‘no’ vote, based on the myths about the EU that exist in the British media. Therefor the Lib Dems have called for an honest referendum vote next time a reform treaty comes around. In their manifesto the Lib Dems commit to an “in/out referendum” on EU membership the next time a British government signs up for fundamental change in the relationship between the UK and the EU. This, they say, would be a more honest referendum rather than holding one on a complicated legal document that few people will understand.

Of course it is a near impossibility that the Liberal Democrats could achieve a majority in the parliament. But if they receive enough votes, then they could ally with either the Tories or Labour and become part of the government for the first time in their history. If a Liberal Democrat were appointed Europe Minister or Foreign Minister, this is an outcome that would go a long way in soothing Brussels' fears even if the Tories were the party they formed a coalition with. However it is much more likely that the Lib Dems would ally with Labour since their political philosophies are more closely aligned. So far Clegg hasn't indicated who he would ally with in the event of a hung parliament.

It will be interesting to see if and how the EU issue will feature in tonight’s debate. The EU is typically not an issue that receives much genuine debate in British politics, and both Labour and the Tories seem keen to avoid any discussion of it (Brown even went so far as to try and sign the Lisbon Treaty away from cameras). Many commentators have noted that the party which stands to benefit the most from these TV debates is the Lib Dems. Because of the way the British parliament is set up, the Lib Dem leader doesn’t get the same prominence of place during debates that the leaders from the main two parties get, and because of this many British people don’t even know who he is. These debates will put him right in people’s living rooms and introduce him to many people for the first time.

Having Clegg there could also have the effect of bringing the EU into the debate in a way that wouldn’t have been done otherwise. Labour would love to highlight the Tories’ blunder over leaving the EPP, but at the same time they are hesitant to bring up anything about the EU because it remains so unpopular domestically and opens them to attack from their working class base for being too pro-EU. Clegg’s urban/educated base is largely pro-EU anyway and so he probably doesn’t have the same concerns, and would be more likely to bring the EU up in the debate and possibly highlight Cameron’s hostile moves in Brussels.

I will watch the debate tonight and give my take on it tomorrow in another entry.


itinerantlondoner said...

The reality is though, that after the elction things won;t be quite as stark as they appear now - the tories have to be stridently anti-EU to keep UKIP the right-wing press off their backs; I'm not saying there will be a swift about turn once they get in power but I also think they'll be pragmatic enough to realise that there are benefits to being a bit more cooperative (just as every previous tory government has been). Meanwhile Labour never get to be quite as their instincts would like to be, for similar reasons. SO we'll just continue with that same old depressing half-in, half-out position we've always had. which sucks, basically.

Gulf Stream Blues said...

That could very well be true. There are rumours here in Brussels that after the election Cameron will rejoin the EPP (see link below). It seems odd to me though that some Brits who plan to vote Tory may be excusing their anti-EU rhetoric by saying they don't really mean what they say or aren't going to do what they say they're going to do. Seems like an odd justification for voting for someone!

Alistair said...

I have no intention of watching this debate tonight, what a waste of time. American presidential debates are completely substance-less, it's a beauty pageant and they never talk about real issues. I can't believe we're bringing this absurd tradition to the UK.

Rachel said...

Love love love this article. I used to live in the UK and haven't been keeping up with political developments there. Thanks for the update, the part about the queen is very funny (and true)!