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Invisible Europe

Civitas, 7 April 2010

6th May is now surely highlighted on every political party’s calendar (since Gordon Brown announced it as the date for the next UK General Election), but there is great uncertainty about where the next 30 days of campaigning will take us, writes Natalie Hamill. We can be fairly sure, however, that the parties’ EU policies will not be a central feature on their campaign trail.

The EU may be a bugbear in domestic politics, but with the EU’s Lisbon Treaty now implemented, and in the absence of questions about joining the Euro, or pending waves of EU enlargement, the main parties are concentrating on core domestic issues to create policies that will persuade voters to tick their box. “It’s the economy, stupid” rings particularly true for the 2010 Election.

According to think-tank Open Europe EU regulation will potentially cost the UK £184 billion between 2010-2020. European issues should be central to debate in the coming General Election.

The main UK parties’ announcements on their EU policies can be summed up somewhat pithily.

The Conservatives have pledged to ensure future EU Treaties will be subject to referenda (in light of the fact that they impinge on UK parliamentary sovereignty). The largely EU-sceptical party has also guaranteed it won’t lead the UK into the Euro (as William Hague established in 2001 with his “Save the Pound” campaign).

Labour, takes a more europhile approach. The party favours joining the Euro (if Brown’s famous “5 economic tests” are met), and supports Croatian and Turkish membership of the EU.  However, what they say and what they do is not always they same, as anyone who remembers their Labour 2005 General Election manifesto promise of a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty…

Then there is the “this election will not be a “two-horse race”” Liberal Democrats, and with the possibility of a hung parliament, there really is all to play for. The Liberal Democrat’s Europhile leader Nick Clegg, (who is an ex-MEP) has previously called for a referendum on the “In or Out” EU Question, to answer EU-sceptical critics “once and for all”. The party is in favour of further EU enlargement, and there were mumblings of “we should consider joining the Euro” when the UK first went into recession. Unfortunately as these are all divisive issues, it is likely that the Lib Dems will happily follow the Labour and Conservative collusion to keep Europe off the agenda and the electorate’s eyes focused firmly on domestic issues.

Of course the UK Independence Party will do its best to make EU issues central to the campaign. But the problem with being a minority party is that you often don’t get invited to share your views in the first place. (The much-publicised TV prime ministerial debate, for example, will be between the leaders of the three main parties only). Writing off UKIP is a mistake. In the European elections last year UKIP beat Labour to second place and were the only party to focus on enlargement, EU bureaucracy and  cost, and immigration; important issues for voters concerned about the larger picture.

The main parties’ determination to avoid talking about the EU could potentially play to UKIP’s advantage – being “outside mainstream politics” might appeal to voters in the post-expenses scandal era… Unfortunately, despite the fact that EU decisions really do affect all UK citizens, we can be fairly certain that the main parties will not showcase in-depth EU agenda on the coming campaign trail.

For detailed information about the main parties’ EU policies, see Civitas’ new 2010 Election Briefing.

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