Ed Miliband's EU referendum pledge forces voters to make 'all or nothing' choice on Europe
Open Europe Director Mats Persson said:
"Whilst Miliband's commitment to EU reform is welcome, his referendum pledge effectively gives the UK public a crude, binary and artificial choice: either accept more Europe or leave the EU altogether. His strategy will also be severely tested and buffeted by events in Europe, including how the UK responds to future integration in the Eurozone that could change the nature of the wider EU, while maintaining public support for continued membership."
Ed Miliband has unveiled the Labour Party's position on an EU referendum: no In/Out referendum unless there is a new EU treaty which gives Brussels new powers. Miliband himself has said that he considers it "unlikely" that his EU referendum will be triggered in the next Parliament. That Labour has chosen not to commit to a date for a straight In/Out vote is not surprising given the perceived gamble involved in offering the public a choice between the status quo (Labour does not agree with Cameron's renegotiation strategy) and Brexit.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of Miliband's policy, there are three main challenges for Labour's EU strategy, which risks ending up on the wrong side of both public opinion and events:
Firstly, on the one hand, Miliband has raised the prospect of a vote (presumably in an attempt to avoid accusations of denying people a say), but, with the other, he is saying that the likelihood of his conditions ever being met is very small. The risk is that, despite today's pledge, Labour is seen by the electorate as the anti-referendum party though whether this will hurt it in the opinion polls remain to be seen.
Secondly, despite his stated intention, Miliband's referendum strategy is inherently biased in favour of the status quo or even 'more Europe'. Miliband said that "If Britain's future in Europe is to be secured, Europe needs to work better for Britain" outlining several reform ideas including strengthening the role of national parliaments and changing rules on access to benefits. He was also clear that Labour's "vision for Europe" was not that of an "inexorable drive to an ever closer union."
However, his proposed referendum is not a mechanism by which to get a public mandate for his reform agenda. In fact, unlike the existing 'referendum lock' put in place by the Coalition, Miliband's referendum lock could potentially force the public to choose between more integration or withdrawal. It would not simply be a referendum on a specific transfer of power to the EU or treaty change but would mean that any proposed transfer of powers to the EU would trigger a straight In/Out vote. So, unless it is prepared to hold two referendums (one on the specific treaty change and one on EU membership), a future government could potentially ask the people to either accept a future transfer of powers to Brussels or risk leaving the EU altogether. This despite opinion poll after opinion poll showing that the public wants to stay in the EU but only after radical reform, including curbing the EU's power.
Finally, his strategy will be severely tested and buffeted by events in Europe. Miliband is right that it's unlikely that there will be another EU Treaty change, that transfers specific, tangible powers from Westminster to Brussels like the Lisbon Treaty did. However, there are plenty of other outstanding issues that will have an impact on Britain's relationship with the EU. For example, in a few years' time, the free-standing "fiscal treaty" is meant to be incorporated into the EU treaties. Will Miliband nod that through, given that it effectively codifies the Bundesbank-style austerity, much criticised by Ed Balls and others? There will probably be more EU treaty changes designed to fix the Eurozone. Though this might not involve a direct transfer of powers from the UK to the EU, it has the potential to substantially change the nature of the EU and single market.
This sounds technical, but the fundamental question is whether Miliband has given away his insurance against the UK ending up "out of the euro but run by the euro"? He can, of course, ask for concessions without a referendum given that all EU treaty changes involve a UK veto (unless done outside the EU structure), but he will have a big political problem in dealing with Eurozone integration and maintaining public support for the wider EU in the process.
There are other flashpoints too. In 2015, the ECJ will deliver it's hugely sensitive ruling on whether the UK needs to scrap the residency test it applies to EU migrants who want to claim benefits in the UK - the opposite of what both Miliband and David Cameron want. Given that Miliband today effectively said, "here but no further", what will he do if the Court says the UK is wrong?
Though designed to inject certainty into the EU debate, Miliband's has, in some ways, provided the opposite.
Table: Potential EU flashpoints for the next UK Government
Open Europe is an independent think-tank calling for reform of the European Union with offices in London and Brussels and a partner organisation in Germany, Open Europe Berlin. Its supporters include: Lord Leach of Fairford, Director, Jardine Matheson Holdings Ltd; Lord Wolfson, Chief Executive, Next Plc; Hugh Sloane, Co-Founder and Chief Executive, Sloane Robinson; Sir Stuart Rose, former Chairman, Marks and Spencer Plc; Jeremy Hosking, Director, Marathon Asset Management; Sir Henry Keswick, Chairman, Jardine Matheson Holdings Ltd; Sir Martin Jacomb, former Chairman, Prudential Plc; Lord Sainsbury of Preston Candover KG, Life President, J Sainsbury Plc; Michael Dobson, Chief Executive, Schroders Plc; David Mayhew, former Chairman, JP Morgan Cazenove; Tom Kremer, Chairman, Seven Towns Ltd; Michael Freeman, Co-founder, Argent property group.