Miliband’s EU hedge makes a disastrous referendum more likely

edmiliLabour leader Ed Miliband announced yesterday that, if elected prime minister after next year’s general election, he would not hold a referendum on the United Kingdom’s continued (now 41-year) membership on the European Union.United Kingdom Flag Icon

At first glance, it sounds like exactly the type of pledge that plenty of pro-European British constituencies, including much of the business community, would applaud — eliminating the uncertainty of the United Kingdom’s future within the European Union that features prominently in the current government’s referendum promise.

It’s hard to see what Miliband has to gain politically or strategically with his new pronouncement on a future EU referendum, a essentially in reaction to Cameron’s position from last year.  It will satisfy neither pro-European nor anti-European voices, allows Cameron to bill himself as a champion of democratic choice, adds additional uncertainty (especially with the likelihood of a new Berlin-led EU treaty effort in the years ahead), and locks Miliband into what could be incredibly short-sighted  policy.

Most of all, it shows why so many Brits, including plenty of Labour supporters, fear that Miliband doesn’t have the skills to make it to 10 Downing Street.

Conservative prime minister David Cameron’s approach entails a hypothetical EU referendum sometime in 2017, after the May 2015 general election and also after Cameron’s theoretically reelected Tory government takes the opportunity to renegotiate the terms of British EU membership, ostensibly to carve back some set of discrete rights (Cameron, so far, has been almost completely silent about which topics he’d like to engage).

Critics rightly viewed Cameron’s EU referendum pledge as a triage attempt to head off the increasing popularity of the stridently euroskeptic United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) after it gained strength in a series of by-elections over the course of the past year.  UKIP threatens to make a strong showing in the upcoming May European parliamentary elections, and its leader, former Tory Nigel Farage could credibly peel off enough votes from the Tories in 2015 to deny Cameron a second term.

Miliband rightly argued that there’s an ‘overwhelming economic case’ for continued EU membership, but that’s a point that Cameron has routinely made in his own right.  Miliband also rightly criticized Cameron for establishing an arbitrary timetable for a future EU referendum, which, of course, hinges on Labor’s failure to win next year’s elections.

But though Miliband pledged to scrap the planned 2017 referendum, he also guaranteed holding an ‘in/out’ referendum in the event that the United Kingdom is asked to transfer more powers to Brussels.  It’s no secret that German chancellor Angela Merkel, fresh into a third term and following a landslide victory in last September’s German elections, hopes to negotiate a new European treaty in the years ahead that will enact greater fiscal and political union — in part to avoid some of the difficulties that plagued European efforts during the eurozone sovereign debt crisis of 2009-12.

That leaves Miliband’s position on a future EU referendum clouded with just as much uncertainty as Cameron’s position — maybe even more uncertainty, because Cameron at least is committed to a 2017 referendum date.  Cameron’s ‘renegotiation’ strategy fits neatly with Merkel’s push for a new treaty in a two-birds-one-stone kind of way.  Though Cameron will strongly oppose any attempt to cede fiscal policymaking from London to Brussels (partly because the United Kingdom never adopted the euro), Cameron strongly supports Merkel’s efforts to impose fiscal discipline throughout the entire eurozone.  If the Conservatives win, Cameron (and Merkel) have all but *wink, wink* promised a stage-managed bargain between two like-minded leaders who see 2017 as an opportunity to advance German and British policy goals in a mutually beneficial manner.

If you take both Merkel and Miliband at their word, it means that Miliband how now tied himself into a promise to hold a referendum if Labour wins in 2015 the moment that Merkel’s treaty efforts come to fruition.  But Miliband and Merkel have about as much in common as Merkel and French president François Hollande.  That means that a Labour government might now increase the chances for a political misfire that would result in the United Kingdom voting itself out of the European Union — and the single market and all the other benefits that the Unite Kingdom currently enjoys from EU membership.

As deputy prime minister Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democratic Party, said earlier today, only UKIP and the Liberal Democrats have clear positions on Britain’s future in the European Union — the Lib Dems are all-in for Europe and UKIP is all-out.

How to explain the contortions of both Cameron and Miliband on an EU referendum?

Domestic politics.  Polls once showed Labour, even under Miliband’s relatively bland leadership, with an appreciable lead over the Tories, largely a result of an electorate’s misery over painful double-dip recession and chancellor George Osborne’s budget cuts at a time of maximum economic pain.  But as the economy improves, hopes for Cameron’s reelection are rising — the latest March 11 ICM/Guardian poll puts Labour at 38% and the Tories at 35%, a statistical tie, with the Liberal Democrats gaining slightly to 12% and UKIP falling back slightly to 9%.

In the current electoral environment, British voters are about even on whether they want to remain part of the European Union.  With Conservatives long torn over Europe (it fatally plagued prime minister John Major’s government in the 1990s), it’s clear why Cameron made his move in favor of a referendum.  Unless he adopted a stronger tone on Europe, the Tories risked losing significant portions of its right-wing electorate to UKIP or even to the more xenophobic British National Party.

But Miliband, who must win culturally conservative English voters to win the next election, also believes that he can’t be too pro-Europe in the current environment, which explains his hedging over his opposition to ‘inexorable’ political union.  Still, Miliband’s position gives Cameron the political space of appearing to offer a ‘real choice’ on UK-EU relations.

No matter who wins the next election, the tactic of threatening a referendum for domestic political benefit (and for concessions from Europe) is more rule than exception in the 41-year history of British EU membership, one of the reasons that I’ve argued that the EU-UK conversation should be more about ‘separation’ than ‘divorce.’

Almost immediately after Conservative prime minister Edward Heath successfully negotiated Britain’s membership, his successor, Labour prime minister Harold Wilson promptly called a referendum on the matter.  Tory prime minister Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s famously opposed greater EU integration and negotiated the UK’s first ‘rebate’ payment, and the 1992 ‘Black Wednesday’ economic crisis pulled the UK pound sterling out of the ‘currency snake’ that preceded monetary union.  Blair and Labour chancellor Gordon Brown closed the question of British entry into the eurozone, establishing the certainty of a ‘multi-speed Europe,’ with the core eurozone countries effecting even greater political and fiscal union.

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