Christopher Howarth is a senior Political Analyst at the think tank Open Europe. Prior to Open Europe he worked as a Conservative Foreign Affairs Adviser and senior researcher to a Shadow Europe Minister
It is 2020, and Ed Miliband, the Prime Minister, is seeking a Labour majority so that he can govern alone without SNP support – but things are not going well for him, since the continued economic crisis has hit him hard in the opinion polls. Overcoming a consistent ten point Conservative lead will be difficult.
Europe is once again a key part of the election campaign. The leader of the Conservative Party has just given a speech setting out how a Conservative government will deliver a 2020 referendum on EU membership within three months, setting out a vision of a prosperous UK outside of the EU and disentangled from what is now commonly called Euroland.
While the leader still expresses a desire to reform the EU prior to the referendum, it is clear that the type of reform demanded will not (and is not expected to) happen. In case there was any doubt the Tory media briefing points out that the leader won the 2015 leadership contest on a pledge to Party members to run a robust campaign to leave the EU.
And the campaign has already begun: the polls now demonstrate that if the Prime Minister advocates an ‘Out’ vote, it will have a strong majority. The recent revelation that the EU had already begun ‘secret’ preliminary work on an UK EU trade agreement has only emboldened the Out campaign. In an attempt to meet concerns about balance, the BBC will this evening feature in a documentary with Lord Farage entitled “Whatever happened to UKIP?”, while Peter Mandelson is busy briefing that it is Miliband’s failure to engage in Europe has led the UK towards the exit. He is arguing that if Labour had held a referendum in 2017 following a real reform programme the UK would have voted to stay in.
And what of Scotland? Having won the 2016 Scottish elections, Nicola Sturgeon is again demanding an independence referendum if Scotland votes to stay in the EU. But the appeal of voting to leave the UK, because the UK is leaving the EU, in order for Scotland to leave the EU and apply for EU membership is, as expected, presenting some presentational difficulties.
Lampedusa’s character the Prince famously observed that “Everything must change so that everything can stay the same” beautifully encapsulating the dilemma facing a Sicilian aristocrat trying to come to terms with the trauma caused by a newly united Italy. This is also true for the EU – either it changes everything or things will not be the same – the UK will leave.
And that is what makes this general election so counter intuitive: a vote for the Conservatives – a vote for EU reform backed up by a referendum – is, if robustly pursued, perhaps the change the EU needs in order to stay together. Both the Conservative and Labour parties are offering variants of EU reform – will it be enough?
The first thing that strikes you reading the 2015 manifestos on Europe is the broad agreement on a range of subjects: reforming access to welfare for EU migrants, increasing the influence of national parliaments, reforming the budget, securing the rights of non-euro states to name just the main areas of agreement. These all need doing, whatever your view about EU membership. But will they be enough for the UK to feel at ease with itself within the EU? For that to happen, I would argue, the EU needs to be reformed as a non-political Union – a community of European states.
In order fundamentally to change the EU, the UK needs to set out a bold vision for a European Union that is no longer a political project based on “ever closer union.” Within this union some states may wish to cooperate on policies were they have a mutual interest or desire – since this is already the case with the Euro and Schengen, there is no reason why it could not be for social policy, EU crime and policing cooperation or EU free movement. The UK, and other states, should be within the Single Market, but only such other areas they wish to. The desire for political union should no longer be a “fundamental principle” of the EU and its court.
So what is it that makes the EU a political construction ? Three things: the growth of the EU into non-core policy areas; the creation of the concept of ‘EU citizens’ with attached rights backed up by a Court, and finally the EU institutions’ attempt to gain their own democratic mandate separate and in competition to the national democracies that underpin genuine European democracy. Returning the rights and responsibilities of citizenship to the member states and the powers of the European parliament to national democracies would radically and fundamentally change the nature of the EU.
All parties in the 2015 election say they are in favour of EU reform to differing degrees and holding a 2017 EU referendum will force the pace, if only to allow David Cameron to advocate an In vote. However a Labour vote will, counter intuitively, not secure the UK’s place in the EU – in fact quite the opposite.