EU debate takes backseat in UK elections

The Labour Party is aiming for a third consecutive term in power in the UK elections on 5 May. EURACTIV looks into why there has been such a lack of EU debate in the parties’ election campaigns.

Daniel Keohane, from the think tank the Centre for European Reform, says that the government’s pledge to hold a referendum on the European Constitution is largely responsible for the lack of debate on the EU.

“During the last election campaign, William Hague’s focus on the euro got him nowhere for the same reason – that a referendum on the euro had been promised to the British people,” says Keohane.

He points out that health, education, trust in the government’s policy on Iraq and the economy (with Britain being outside the euro) have little to do with the European Union.

However, immigration is a more relevant issue. Keohan observes that the UK Independence Party is disingenously making out that Brussels is forcing its immigration policy on the UK. He notes that the Conservatives have therefore chosen not to pick up on the EU angle of immigration, preferring to focus on British policy on immigration.

Director of the International Studies Centre in Cambridge University Christopher Hill says that none of the parties wants to talk about Europe. He says that the Liberal Democrats don’t want to because they are the most pro-European party and are afraid of seeming unpatriotic. He adds that the Conservatives don’t want to go into a detailed discussion about the Constitution because they know that there is nothing in particular in it that is a real threat to British interests and that Blair can argue that it is a victory for British interests as the French think. Labour do not want to be forced to take a more pro-European line, he says. “If they [the French] vote no, they solve Blair’s problem about what to do about Europe,” Hill told Spanish daily newspaper El Pais.

The Labour Party has committed itself to holding referendums on the EU Constitution and on the euro. In its manifesto, the party says it will campaign wholeheartedly for a 'yes' vote. It adds that it will take further action in Europe to ensure that EU regulations are proportionate and better designed. It supports the creation of an EU single market in services to match the single market in goods and pledges to protect UK employment standards. If elected, it commits to using the UK's 2005 presidency of the EU to promote the inclusion of aviation in the EU's emissions trading scheme.

The Conservative Party is against joining the euro and is arguing for a 'no' vote to the European Constitution. It maintains that the Constitution would take the EU in the wrong direction and sees its rejection as an opportunity for the EU to discuss it again. If elected, the party has pledged to hold a referendum on the Constitution within six months (ie October 2005).

"We want to get powers back from Brussels where things are not working well, particularly in fisheries. We would negotiate opt-outs from the relevant directives that prevent us from carrying out our policies on asylum and immigration," Conservative spokesperson David Hart told EURACTIV.

The party's policy unit has produced a document entitled 'Reversing the drivers of regulation - the European Union' in which it sets out its programme of deregulation and comes up with its proposals to reverse the EU as a driver of regulation.

The Liberal Democrat Party is in favour of Britain's stronger engagement in Europe and supports the EU Constitution. Matt Waldon, Foreign Affairs Advisor for the Liberal Democrats, says that the party has made clear that it wants Britain to be fully committed to the EU. "The Labour Party has failed to make the case for this relationship. On occasions it has shown a subordinate relationship to the US with some decisions not necessarily in Britain's best interests. Britain's foreign policy has been damaged under the Labour Party," says Waldon. 

Following a long stint of Conservative government in the late 1970s and 1980s, the Labour Party has a third term of government in its sights on 5 May 2005. Margaret Thatcher was notorious for her belligerent attitude towards the EU, epitomised by her demand that "I want my money back". She succeeded in securing a special rebate for the UK which is now under pressure with heads of state and government soon to debate the EU's long-term budget.

In 2001, the Conservative's then leader William Hague put the euro at the heart of his campaign. The slogan, 'save the pound' clearly sums up the message that he would 'defend' Britain from the euro. The issue of Europe has been largely absent from the 2005 election debate.

The UK general election takes place on 5 May

Referendums on the EU Constitution and on the euro are planned

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