The issue of Europe seldom wins elections, but it can lose them. Clashes over the EU tore John Major’s Conservatives apart in the 1990s and made the Tories unelectable for a decade. Meanwhile, Labour won three successive elections with a pro-European stance behind which the party united. Now David Cameron faces the same problem.
Tory backbenchers have already started to kick up a fuss. 81 Tory rebels defied Cameron’s wishes last autumn and voted for a referendum on EU membership. Cameron fudged the issue, promising a referendum in the next Parliament, without elaborating on what the considerations would be. This was the only way to placate both wings of the coalition.
Fast-forward a year, and arguments over the EU’s next 7-year budget (currently a €120.7bn per year total from all states) have prompted mayhem and politicking. Tory backbenchers unsurprisingly want a cut, in line with austerity measures at home. The Lib Dems and pro-European Tories don’t want EU membership to become a big debate, and so are willing to agree to a small increase.
Cameron just wants a solution, the big surprise was Labour. They also want a cut, which led to the coalition’s most significant defeat in the Commons in October, when a non-binding bill promising a real terms freeze in the EU budget was blocked by Labour and Tory rebels. Talks in Brussels then stalled.
Some believe the EU should be seen as a positive. Certainly its size gives the UK greater political clout on the world stage. The EU also accounts for roughly half of all UK exports.
However its budget amounts to only 1% of GDP, costing £15 per person. Compared to the 50% of GDP spent on the UK public sector, and the bailouts needed to solve the Eurozone crisis, it’s a piffling sum.
Furthermore, European ‘taxpayers’ get a return. EU cohesion-fund investments bring greater prosperity to export markets and increase demand for British goods. Non-membership status, similar to that of Switzerland and Norway, would mean the UK still having to adhere to EU standards, without having a say in what these were. Currently, the national veto means it has a big say. It has struck a good balance between freedom and influence.
In light of these advantages, a referendum on membership should not be the vote winner it is turning out to be. It has emerged as a key political battleground, on a par with austerity versus stimulus. The largely emotive fight for a freeze has been blown up into an in-out ultimatum.
The parties should be setting out convincing strategies on realistic repatriation of powers and sensible budgetary demands, underpinned by a belief in the EU as a force for good. Instead, in light of recent Labour politicking and Tory in-fighting, voters may be reluctant to lend their support to either party lest they accidentally bring about an exit from the EU.
Cameron, taunted by inappropriate World War II rhetoric, such as David Low’s ‘Very well – alone’, has done well to maintain a compromising approach. Yet he has not ruled out (or ruled in) a referendum. Perhaps he feels that he can’t. Perhaps the real question is whether Miliband will sacrifice further political wins in order to curb Labour’s newfound Euroscepticism.
The debate used to be between sceptics (UKIP and the Tory Right) and the status quo (everyone else). Now the split is shifting towards repatriation versus non-membership. Both of these causes jeopardise the UK’s relationship with Europe. The ‘status quo’ voters, for whom Europe is a small consideration, may soon have nowhere to go.
Finally, John Major famously said that it was time for the rebels to put up or shut up. With the lack of political support, the EU may choose to say the same to the UK.