The Blog

Where Is the British Election Taking Europe?

It is tempting to hope that the general election on 7 May will sort out Europe's British problem for good. Tempting but wrong. There may well be clarification, and even some terrible over-simplification, but not a resolution.

It is tempting to hope that the general election on 7 May will sort out Europe's British problem for good. Tempting but wrong. There may well be clarification, and even some terrible over-simplification, but not a resolution. Search the electoral campaign for a high-level debate on the UK's European future in vain: to date, the only major intervention at that level has been by Tony Blair who, as if in some magnificent l'esprit de l'escalier, let rip at the recklessness and fecklessness of David Cameron's obsession with the holding of an in/out referendum in 2017.

The Conservative Party

Do the parties' manifestos offer clarity as to what might happen next? In all cases, one has to turn to the back of the documents. The Conservative manifesto (pp. 72-73) commits, as we feared, to 'real change in our relationship with the European Union'.

The EU, apparently, is 'too big, too bossy and too bureaucratic' - oh, and 'too undemocratic'. What is not clear from the Tory manifesto is the precise nature of the bigness problem: too many member states? In that case Grexit and/or Brexit offers something of a Tory solution. Too large a European Commission? But Cameron agreed to give every state a Commissioner against the grain of the Lisbon treaty which prescribes two-thirds.

In any case, given a Tory election victory, this manifesto will shape Cameron's renegotiation of the British terms of EU membership, an adventure on which he intends to embark immediately after the election. The manifesto confirms that the outcome of the renegotiation will be put to a referendum before the end of 2017, whose result will bind a Conservative government. In a significant passage that sets a red line for any coalition negotiations, Cameron 'will only lead a government that offers an in-out referendum'. Potentially, this gives the Liberal Democrats (and the few remaining sensible Tories) a chance to deny Cameron a second shot at the premiership.

The main aim of the renegotiation will be to 'reclaim powers from Brussels' - apparently a process which has already resulted in the return of 'around 100 powers' (alas, unspecified). '[B]ut we want to go further. We want national parliaments to be able to work together to block unwanted European legislation. And we want an end to our commitment to an 'ever closer union', as enshrined in the Treaty to which every EU country has to sign up.' So it's no to 'a constant flow of power to Brussels'. And it's no, too, to joining the euro and participating in eurozone bail-outs, as well as no to 'notions like the European army'.

But it's yes to the single market as long as 'new sectors are opened up to British firms', and as long as legitimate financial services activities of the City of London are not jeopardised. EU spending should be cut further, and concentrated on jobs and growth (rather than farmers). A British Bill of Rights will be introduced to qualify the European Convention on Human Rights and 'curtail' the powers of the Strasbourg court, restoring 'common sense'.

The Conservatives are eloquent about how to cut the number of EU migrants. They will both delay and cut housing and welfare benefits for non-British EU citizens, and deprive EU workers of child benefit if their children are not with them in the UK. And EU job-seekers will be sent back home if they have not found a job within six months.

The Labour Party

Labour, by contrast, wants to strengthen the UK's 'international alliances' like the EU and NATO. But the goal of Labour's manifesto (pp. 76-77) is to 're-engage with our European allies to protect our national interest'. There's also a commitment to the single market and tougher budget discipline, including (this is encouraging) where spending at the EU level 'can save money at the national level'. The European Commission should conduct a zero-based review of EU agencies.

Institutional reforms will be sought which open up decision making and build up trust among European citizens. The powers of national parliaments will be strengthened over EU legislation by installing a 'red card' mechanism. Just like the Tories, Labour 'will not join the euro', and will stand up for the rights of the non-eurozone states in the single market. Labour's overall ambition is to 'return Britain to a leadership role in Europe, but reform the EU so that it works for Britain'.

Labour will 'secure reforms to immigration and social security rules, as well as pushing for stronger transitional controls, which will enable member states to manage the flow of workers for longer when new countries join'.

On the referendum question, Labour 'will legislate for a lock that guarantees that there can be no transfer of powers from Britain to the European Union without the consent of the British public through an in/out referendum'. Which is in itself a curious commitment because that is precisely the import of the EU Act that was pushed through the Westminster parliament by the coalition government in July 2011, much to Labour's embarrassment at the time.

The Liberal Democrats

This brings us to the Liberal Democrat manifesto (pp. 145-50). Nick Clegg's party wants the UK to be 'a leader in the EU once again'.

The Lib Dems congratulate themselves on the EU referendum Act and on cutting the EU budget. They will abolish the poor old Economic & Social Committee and make the European Parliament leave Strasbourg. They will give 'a combined majority of national parliaments the automatic ability to block unwanted legislation'. In 'combined' majority the Lib Dems have invented a new concept in constitutional law: the EU has got on well enough so far with mere simple and qualified majorities.

A new coalition?

Three things are clear from these three manifestos. First, Labour and the Lib Dems could easily enough form a coalition agreement on EU policy. Second, the Conservatives will only be able to carry their EU renegotiation policy if the Lib Dems do a somersault on the question of the 2017 referendum to rival their previous U-turn on university tuition fees. Third, the only thing all three parties agree on in the way of EU treaty change is giving national parliaments the power to veto EU law making - and that policy is a very bad one indeed.

I have written elsewhere on why the existing subsidiarity early warning mechanism - which, by the way, contains its own red card (Article 8, Protocol No 2 of the EU Treaties) - is hardly used by national parliaments: in the next treaty revision it may even be abolished altogether.

Strengthening the powers of national parliaments in the legislative process of the Union will perforce weaken the European Parliament. At a time when the Union is about to accelerate towards fiscal and political union such a counter proposal from London would look mighty odd - and would be certain to fail.

And that's the truly sad thing about the British election campaign. Even though Labour and the Lib Dems are well disposed in general towards the European Union, no party is campaigning positively to build a more united Europe. Even the SNP denies itself the euro. A Tory referendum in 2017 that said yes to staying in the present EU would not be the last: once there is really a new treaty in, say, 2019 there will have to be a second referendum. With Scotland in its present mood, each EU referendum risks the break-up of the United Kingdom.

The pity is that no mainstream British party has begun to develop an agenda for what the UK should do when faced with a federal Europe. Neither David Cameron nor Ed Miliband will know what to do when they turn up at the European Council in Brussels on 25-26 June and are faced with Jean-Claude Juncker's proposals on economic governance. Whatever the outcome on 8 May, the UK still risks being seen to be a part of Europe's problem rather than a part of its solution.