It’s rewarding to know that Ed Miliband (or at least his minions) read blogs, even if incompletely. Last week, I wrote a piece off the back some press speculation about the Labour leader being about to offer a referendum.
In that post, I noted that Miliband was going to be motivated to do this because of the up-coming European elections, but that he was going to have to be careful not to get boxed into a policy commitment that could work very strongly against him. Moreover, I said that a key problem was that most people didn’t rate ‘Europe’ as an issue.
Ed’s people obviously picked this up, as evidenced in his speech yesterday:
“As we go into the general election, I am clear the priority for the next Labour government is the cost-of-living crisis.
Not a costly and damaging debate about exiting the EU.”
So far, so REF impact case-study. But there’s a problem.
Miliband’s offer was of an in-out vote in the event of further transfer of competences to the EU. Put like this, it seems quite clear.
However, much of the media coverage was about the likelihood that there would be no such transfer during the next parliament, as reflected in this graph of newspaper headlines I put together yesterday lunchtime:
This conditionality is actually not the key aspect of the speech: enough politicians have had their fingers burnt enough times to know better than to predict the future, especially of the EU. Suffice to say that what might seem unlikely now, might be inevitable in a relatively short period of time.
The core problem is actually around the frame that Miliband has now constructed. While he didn’t discuss the point, logic might suggest that an in/out referendum would have to be offered each time a competence transfer too place, rather than just the once, although perhaps the absence of discussion on this might be to intentionally leave wiggle room on the point.
However, the result is that Miliband will now enter any treaty negotiation with a position of in/out underpinning his brief (just as Cameron would do under his renegotiate and vote policy): as Kosmopolit astutely noted yesterday, that’s not a good way to exercise leadership in the Union or to win concessions. Imagine a situation where some relatively peripheral aspect (for the UK) of competences is changed, leading to a vote on the EU as a whole: it scarcely reflects the change being proposed.
In effect, it ensures that whatever government is formed in 2015, any treaty negotiations will lead to a referendum (as per the standing legislation) and that referendum is likely to be in/out. The only difference between Conservative and Labour is that the former will seek out negotiations.
Such mechanistic approaches continue to compromise the ability of the UK to secure its objectives in the legislative and constitutional process, as I’ve discussed many times before here. In the short term, the effect is likely to be that other EU member states will try to find solutions to problems within the treaty framework, so as to avoid opening the treaty reform process. But in the longer-term, those same member states have indicated that they are not going to be limited by the UK: Angela Merkel’s visit the other week was instructive on this front.
One of the more striking aspects of yesterday’s events was the lack of interest from non-UK media. When the man most likely to form the next British government can’t get an audience for his EU policy, this suggests that some more time might be spent cultivating contacts and building support. Labour has already flagged its opposition to the choice of Martin Schulz as PES Spitzenkandidat for the EP elections, so no one should be under the illusion that a Labour government will find the European issue any easily to handle than their Tory predecessor.
Dr Simon Usherwood is a Senior Lecturer at the School of Politics, University of Surrey.