Britain, Europe and the general election

Going to vote

By Richard Laming

Today’s conference has been looking at the Europe policies of the different political parties. I will speak about the Liberal Democrats’ policies in a moment but I want to preface my remarks with a comment about why we are interested in the Liberal Democrats at all.

It is widely held that there are two possible outcomes from this general election, either Gordon Brown will remain prime minister or David Cameron will replace him. So we are interested in what Labour and Conservative policies are. But why are we interested in the policies of the Liberal Democrats, when they are so far from winning the general election?

The answer is the likelihood of a hung parliament, in which no party gets a majority of seats on its own. If that should happen – and the latest opinion polls suggest it is increasingly likely – then there will have to be negotiations between the parties about who will form the next government and what the policy programme will be. The views of the Liberal Democrats in that scenario then become interesting, if they are in a position to make demands of the other two parties. I will conclude my remarks with some speculation on what those Liberal Democrat demands might be and which of the two other parties might be willing or able to accede to them.

So what are the Liberal Democrat policies on Europe? They are spelled out in their manifesto, but it is worth being a little cautious about the exact wordings used. It is very possible that policies will be changed under the scrutiny of a general election campaign, and in the case of foreign affairs, even if the policy is not, it is not always within the power of the government to deliver it. Much of depends on obtaining the agreement or the acquiescence of other countries, which may or may not be forthcoming. For example, the Conservative manifesto calls for a “special relationship” with India – is India seeking a similar relationship with the Conservatives?

With that health warning about the precise wordings in the manifesto, what are Liberal Democrat policies? They are broadly pro-European in the traditional and proper sense, in that they think of the EU as an international organisation founded on its institutions, rather than merely as a collection of member states. That matters because it is then possible for them to talk in terms of making those institutions more accountable and transparent: a more strictly intergovernmental approach can do little, as the Conservative manifesto does, other than call for those institutions to be pruned back.

The Liberal Democrats share the view of the other two parties that the EU should be a force for economic growth and environmental protection; similarly, they call for reform of the CAP and the wider EU budget. They differ from the other two in that they see benefits from joining the euro, although they insist that the necessary economic preconditions are not currently in place. They also discuss broader foreign policy questions, such as relations with China, in the context of a European foreign policy, rather than envisaging them as purely bilateral matters, and they are enthusiastic about the financial savings to be made from joint European procurement of military equipment.

Two areas where there are sharp disagreements with the other parties arise from the Lisbon treaty. First of all, Lisbon will extend the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice over the EU’s policies regarding the area of freedom, security and justice. The UK has the option, during the year 2013, of withdrawing from those policies rather than accepting the extension of the ECJ’s jurisdiction, which the Liberal Democrats are clear that they would not take. The Conservatives have said that they would not accept a wider ECJ mandate, and so by implication would have to withdraw from European cooperation on the fight against international terrorism and organised crime. The Labour manifesto, astonishingly (considering it was Labour that negotiated this provision in the Lisbon treaty), is silent on the subject.

The second disagreement is on the subject of a referendum. They say that there should be, on the occasion of a future referendum on a European question, a referendum on whether or not Britain should stay in the EU. The Conservatives have promised a referendum on any future extension of the powers of the EU, but have stopped short of suggesting a referendum on EU membership as such. (Read more about Conservative policies here.) If they were to propose such a referendum, they would make themselves much more attractive to UKIP voters, but they have probably calculated that they would lose rather more voters to the other parties than they could possibly gain from UKIP. Labour is silent on this issue too.

If those are the main policies of the Liberal Democrats, how easily would they fit with those of Labour or the Conservatives?

A number of the issues, such as CAP reform, are not controversial between the parties, and others that might be, such as relations with India, probably will turn out not to be because of the lack of corresponding interest from the necessary third parties. Nevertheless, there are two specific decisions that will be required during the next parliament, on withdrawing from Europol and on common defence procurement, on which the positions of the parties matter.

Even though the Conservatives are opposed to the Liberal Democrat viewpoints on these issues, that may not be an obstacle towards cooperation in the event of a hung parliament. The Liberal Democrats themselves have said that the main issues upon which they would focus in any post-election negotiations are tax reforms, education policy, banking reform, and reforms of the British political system itself. Europe is not one of them. In that light, conversations between Liberal Democrats and Conservatives are therefore possible.

Looking at the two areas where decisions are need, the Conservatives are more interested in bilateral defence cooperation with the French rather than an institutionalised cooperation in the context of the EU, in which case some kind of compromised might readily be found. To withdraw from European policies and institutions on international terrorism and organised crime would require a vote in parliament, so a Liberal Democrat/Conservative agreement could easily allow withdrawal to be part of a Tory government programme but not necessarily permit it to be delivered.

I think that the Liberal Democrats have configured their policy priorities so as to permit them to tolerate a Conservative government’s European policy (there is no question of them actually supporting a Conservative government).

When it comes to possible cooperation with Labour, it is noteworthy that the Labour manifesto is silent on these pressing issues. To me, that suggests that Labour has simply run out of steam. There is no energy and few ideas that a re-elected Labour government would bring to its European policy. The last 13 years have seen Labour in government promise rather more than it has delivered on European policy; I do not expect that the Liberal Democrats would find it impossible to cooperate with a Labour government that modified its policy in the direction of no longer even promising anything.

Richard Laming is chair of Federal Union. This article is based on a talk given at the Federal Trust conference, “Britain, Europe and the general election”, on 14 April 2010.

More information

Labour election manifesto

Conservative election manifesto

Liberal Democrats election manifesto

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