Because of Prime Minister David Cameron’s promise to hold a referendum on a renegotiated treaty in 2017, EU membership should be one of the central themes of the May 7 UK election. Yet, surprisingly, the topic hasn’t featured prominently in the campaign, despite its heavy post-election impact.
Labour have a ruled out an EU referendum, albeit with the stipulation that Brussels doesn’t advance further into UK sovereignty. This is a canny proclamation, given the suspicion of Brussels in the British mindset, but whether Ed Miliband has the ability to sell this to the public is another matter.
The EU needs to be sold as important for its open trade and movement advantages, and the wealth and cultural acumen that this will continue to provide. However, the British public remain skeptical of excess bureaucracy restricting their options. The paternalistic social models that the French are comfortable with, have less traction in Britain.
Unfortunately, there is a prominent xenophobic streak that still exists within the country, and this goes unchallenged by both Labour and the Tories. This has fuelled the rise of UKIP (UK Independence Party), and has distracted the public from the great benefits of freer movement of people. Labour formalised their part in this fearfest by producing an absurd “Controls On Immigration” mug sold at their online store.
Despite superficial predictions, limiting movement of people from other European countries will not increase opportunities for British residents. It will actually isolate people further from the world and decrease the infrastructure of opportunity that is born from greater skills and diversity. This is particularly apparent in education, science and industrial industries, according to the current Business Secretary, the Liberal Democrats’ Vince Cable.
UKIP’s isolationism is a dangerous disengagement from understanding and adapting to the modern globalised world. And pandering from the Conservatives and Labour, rather than explaining the benefits to the public, risks both economic and social corrosion.
Amusingly, UKIP have taken to espousing conspiracy theories about school children being brainwashed to be pro-EU. Not taking into account that young people nowadays grow up in a globalised world. Cross-cultural interaction is a social norm, whether it be physical or via the internet.
Negotiating a Coalition
At current polling, both Labour and the Tories will be 50 – 60 seats short of a majority. Usually this would bring the Liberal-Democrats – the most pro-EU of the parties – in as kingmaker. As it did in the previous election.
However, the Lib-Dems’ current 57 seats looks very unlikely to be replicated. Yet, if the party can resurrect some of its fortunes (22% of the vote in 2010) in the coming days, those wishing to maintain the UK’s presence in the EU could be placated.
Unfortunately, this drop in support for the Liberal-Democrats has been a petty reaction from the British public (fuelled by partisan warriors who rarely take a “bigger picture” view).
With the way the numbers fell at the last election, the party made the only mature choice available. Simply guaranteeing supply to the Tories would have not provided the country with a stable and workable government.
But by forming a coalition, it gave the party a seat at the table, a chance to help form policy, not simply acquiesce or reject bills presented to the parliament. It also gave them experience in government. Something they hadn’t had since the 1920s. The formal coalition was a wise and responsible choice given the circumstances and the party themselves should be promoting this, appealing to the public’s rationality. However, this has not been the case.
Unfortunately, Jeremy Browne, one of the Lib-Dems’ best thinkers and salespeople, has decided to not contest the forthcoming election. This has denied the Lib-Dems an advocate who has challenged the party’s strategy of merely “splitting the difference” between Labour and the Tories. A strategy which perpetually resigns the Lib-Dems to third party status, and shows no faith in the public to understand politics beyond the superficial and archaic Left-Right divide.
Due to this, the party will continue to be treated with a shrug by the majority of the public. A shrug that seems to extend to the public’s attitude towards the EU.
For those with an interest in maintaining the UK’s presence in the EU, a Labour/Lib-Dem coalition is the best hope for this election (although a majority coalition seems unlikely). Therefore attempts by Labour to undermine the Lib-Dems in many of their seats (including Nick Clegg’s) is a short sighted strategy.
Many seats in the south and south-west of England are contests between the Conservatives and the Liberal-Democrats. Labour strategists may be wise to not run candidates in these seats in the hope that many Labour voters will turn to the Lib-Dems as their next best choice. With some of the Tory vote also going to UKIP, this may enable Lib-Dem victories, and potentially provide the numbers for a stable coalition.
However, it is probably now too late for this strategy to be adopted by Labour. As a result, the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) look set to be the third largest party in the parliament and therefore the kingmaker. A kingmaker that doesn’t have the entire United Kingdom on its agenda.
Labour have ruled out both a formal coalition with the SNP, and a confidence and supply deal. However, the SNP are, along with the Lib-Dems the most pro-EU of the the UK’s parties. This would most likely translate into votes for pro-EU policies should a minority Labour-Lib Dem coalition be able to form a government. Yet, accepting SNP votes may prove distasteful to the English public.
The other option would be for the SNP to abstain from voting, or even not take their seats in the parliament the way Northern Ireland’s Sinn Féin does. This would reduce the Parliamentary numbers required to pass bills. Although this action may prove distasteful amongst Scottish voters who may expect the SNP to play a role in the UK Parliament.
Should a Conservative-led government be formed, and a referendum on the EU implemented, the SNP’s position is that all 4 nations that make up the United Kingdom (England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) cannot be removed from the EU without each of their consent.
A referendum that achieved a majority, most likely would only do so with English votes. The other three nations have lower populations, but, especially in Scotland, there is a belief that some sovereignty is to be respected in regards to EU membership, despite the political union of the 4 nations.
Free trade and free movement are essential for the EU as a “project of peace”. This is recognised by both Labour and the Liberal-Democrats. However, this seems counter-intuitive to those who still cling to “purer” ideas about nation-states (UKIP and elements of the Tories). But increased knowledge and interaction will always defeat insularity. Labour and the Lib-Dems need to promote this perspective. Especially if a returned Tory government results in a referendum on EU membership.