Tuesday, 8 April 2014

The Argument Over the EU

Recently, the issue of staying or leaving the EU has been debated and written about constantly in the news. It is likely that the main party's manifesto committments towards their attitude on the EU and issues such as immigration will help them win or lose the 2015 General Election. I am going to do a post on the Clegg v. Farage debates soon, but today I thought I write a timeline (in true historical fashion) on campaigns for EU referendums since we joined the EEC (as it was called then) in 1973.


On 1 January 1973 the UK joined the European Economic Community (EEC) under the Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath. Just a year later, Harold Wilson's (Labour) Party was split on whether or not to remain in the EEC, and his is election manifesto Wilson promised a referendum on the issue. On June 6 1975 67% of people voted to stay in the EU.


In Labour's 1983 election manifesto Michael Foot promised to begin negotiations to withdraw from the EU within the next term of Parliament, however Labour lost the election. 1983: In their election manifesto, Labour, under leader Michael Foot, pledge to begin negotiations to withdraw from the EU "within the lifetime" of the following Parliament. Labour lose the election. In 1989 Thatcher suggested that the UK would joined the European Exchange Rate Mechanism, however she resigned before any transition of currency was made. 


In 1992 European leaders signed the Maastricht Treaty, creating the modern day European Union. The UK signed, but refused to enter the European Exchange Rate Mechanism. In 1993 Tory rebels campaigned, and failed, for a referendum on the Maastricht Treaty. Parliament approved the treaty but only after John Major was forced to call a vote of confidence in his government. Denmark and France were among countries who did hold a referendum on the Treaty. In 1996 billionaire businessman Sir James Goldsmith launches the Referendum Party to campaign for a public vote on the UK's membership of the EU, his party secured only 3% of the vote at the 1997 general election. In 1997 in their election manifesto Labour said, if it was voted for in a referendum, Britain would join the single currency. However in 1999 the euro was launched, and the UK opted out.


In 2004 Blair promised to a hold a referendum on the European Constitution Treaty but did not give a date for the poll. In the 2005 General Election, all three major parties promised to hold a referendum on whether to ratify the EU Constitution. In referendums in France and the Netherlands, the proposal was rejected. In 2006 the cross-party Better Off Out Group, seeking the UK's withdrawal from the EU, was launched. In 2007 the European Commission proposed a replacement treaty; the Lisbon Treaty. The Labour government claimed no referendum was needed over the Treaty, as it was a different document, amending not overwriting existing treaties. Conservative leader David Cameron gave a "cast-iron guarantee" to hold a referendum on any treaty emerging from the Lisbon process if he becomes prime minister.

In 2008 Clegg called for an "in-out" referendum on UK membership of the EU. MPs rejected a Conservative call for a referendum on whether the Lisbon Treaty should be ratified by 63 votes. 15 Labour MPs and 14 Lib Dems rebelled against their parties. In 2008 the UK ratified the Lisbon Treaty and the High Court rejected calls for a judicial review of the decision by Tory MP Bill Cash and businessman Stuart Wheeler, who claimed ratification without a referendum was illegal.

In 2009 Cameron was forced to admit he will not be able to fulfil his pledge to hold a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty because it has been ratified by all EU member states. But he says, if elected, no future substantial transfer of powers will take place without the approval of the British people. The UK Independence Party, which puts an in/out referendum on UK membership of the EU at the heart of its programme, came in second in the European Parliament elections, with 16% of votes.


In the Lib Dem election manifesto, Clegg pledged to hold an "in-out" referendum the next time there is a "fundamental change" in the EU's treaty arrangements, and in May 2010 a new generation of more eurosceptic Conservative MPs were elected to Parliament. In Febuary 2011 Tory MP Peter Bone failed to secure an "in-out" referendum by amending government legislation proposing a referendum if big changes are made to EU treaties. In March of the same year the People's Pledge campaign for a referendum was launched and on 8 September a petition calling for a referendum on EU membership, signed by 100,000 people, was handed into Downing Street. On 12 September a meeting was held with over 100 Tory MPs to discuss how to reconfigure the UK's relationship with Europe in wake of the eurozone financial crisis.

On 17 October 2011 the backbench business committee agreed to hold a Commons debate on EU membership following a request by Tory MP David Nuttall. However on the 24th October the motion calling for a referendum on EU membership was defeated in the Commons by 483 votes to 111. However, 81 Tory MPs supported it and a further two actively abstained - making it by far the largest ever Conservative rebellion over Europe. In addition, 19 Labour MPs and one Liberal Democrat defied their party leadership in urging a referendum.

On 22 January 2013 Cameron said that if the Conservatives win the next election they would seek to renegotiate the UK's relationship with the EU and then give the British people the "simple choice" in 2017 between staying in the EU under those terms or leaving the EU. His speech came against a background of polls suggesting UKIP had 10% support. On 5 July 2013 a Conservative bill to make the party's pledge to hold an in/out referendum in 2017 law was passed by 304 votes to 0, however the Lords rejected it. On 31 January 2014 Cameron said the Conservatives will bring back the Private Member's Bill and would use a Parliament Act to force it into law, rather than seeing the Lords block it again.

26 Mar 2014: Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg and UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage clashed in the first of two live debates on whether the UK should be in the EU. Clegg said the Lib Dems are a 'party of in' when it comes to the EU, whilst Farage said he would hold an immediate in/out referendum. Miliband, on 12th March 2014, said Labour will not hold a referendum on the UK's membership of the European Union unless there are proposals to transfer further powers from London to Brussels.

All of this shows that the issue of Europe is complicated and no one can completely on agree on what the best course of action is to take. I would advise keeping up to date with EU news in the papers and having a look at the 2015 party manifestos, so that if the Conservatives do win next year, you will be better prepared to vote (if old enough) in the 2017 referendum.