Cameron has a policy on Europe – what about Clegg and Miliband?
Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband have delicate judgements to make on how to position their parties on Europe by the time of the election. Indeed, they may have only about six months to decide because it may prove awkward to fight next May’s European Parliament elections without a clear policy.
If the Conservatives and Lib Dems are in a position to re-form their coalition after the election, David Cameron has made it clear that his junior partners would have to sign up to his renegotiation and referendum policy. Hence Clegg’s “when not if” comment in May about the need for an in-out referendum.
Equally, Miliband might find it uncomfortable to go into the election as the only party that wants to “deny the people a say”. He has resisted those in his party who want to cause mayhem for the Government by forcing a vote, which would be supported by Tory Eurosceptics, for a referendum before the election – and he will, I am told, refuse to support any amendment to that effect to James Wharton’s Private Member’s Bill when it comes back to the Commons in November.
But we are on the look-out for signs of Labour or Lib Dem recalibration. That is why The Times on Saturday (pay wall) was alive to hints from David Laws that the Lib Dems might be edging towards an in-out referendum. Actually, as Allie Renison pointed out, Laws said nothing new – in fact, he retreated somewhat from the referendum position by suggesting that one wouldn’t be needed if sufficient powers were returned to Westminster from Brussels.
My guess is that both Miliband and Clegg will move towards a position of supporting an in-out referendum after a renegotiation, but without a date.
The Labour argument will be for a Labour renegotiation, emphasising worker protection, although this might include some copycat measures to restrict freedom of movement of EU workers – in other words, to bolt the stable door after the Polish horse has come in through it.
Both Miliband and Clegg will emphasise, however, that a new treaty would be needed anyway as the eurozone continues to reinforce its political superstructure. And they could say that they do not know how long this adjustment might take, and refuse on those grounds to commit to the 2017 referendum date in the Tory manifesto.
That would allow Clegg to hedge both ways, so that he could agree to the 2017 referendum in coalition talks with the Tories, while keeping Lib Dem options open with Labour (although it might be Vince Cable rather than him talking coalition terms if Labour were the largest party, as I argued yesterday).
And it would allow Miliband to say that he, too, is eager to let the British people have a say – it is just that it would not be in the national interest to have such a vote until the shape of the new Europe is settled.
Would that work? I don’t know. I have previously written that Miliband would be unable to resist the pressure to promise a referendum in Labour’s manifesto, which would imply that it would be held during the next parliament. But the prospect of a Labour government holding such a referendum is unattractive. Early would give no time for meaningful renegotiation. Mid-term would be a nightmare against a Eurosceptic Tory opposition. And so would late, with the added complication of running in to the next election.
Next week in Brighton, look out for clues to what Labour’s policy on Europe might be.Tagged in: eu referendum, euroscepticism
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