Tories, Labour offer contrasting views on Europe

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A Conservative government would “constructively engage” with the EU but introduce a ‘referendum lock’ on all future transfers of power from London to Brussels, while Labour would seek to preserve Britain’s role as a “leading player in Europe,” reveal the parties’ manifestos, launched this week ahead of a general election due on 6 May. 

Launching his party’s manifesto yesterday (13 April) with a pledge to return power to the people, Tory leader David Cameron vowed to hold referenda on all future EU treaties that transfer power from the UK to Brussels.

But the Conservatives stopped short of promising to re-address Britain’s ratification of the Lisbon Treaty, which was completed in July 2008.

“We will work constructively with the EU, but we will not hand over any more areas of power and we will never join the euro,” the Tories’ manifesto states, adding that Britain’s best interests are served by membership of a Union that is “an association of its member states”.

The Tories describe rivals Labour’s ratification of Lisbon without holding a referendum as “a betrayal of this country’s democratic tradition” and pledge in their manifesto – unveiled at London’s Battersea Power Station – “to make sure this shameful episode can never happen again”.

Gordon Brown’s Labour, meanwhile, warned that “sullen resistance and disengagement achieve nothing” and expressed pride that the UK “is once again a leading player in Europe”.

“The poverty of the Tory vision is summed up by their false choice between an alliance with the United States and one with Europe. In Europe they are not just isolated, but marginalised, in a tiny group of far-right parties that endorses extreme views and is stuck in climate-change denial,” reads their manifesto, launched by Prime Minister Brown at Birmingham’s Queen Elisabeth hospital on Monday.

‘Referendum lock’

“We will ensure that by law no future government can hand over areas of power to the EU or join the euro without a referendum of the British people,” reads the Conservative manifesto, which includes a pledge to “amend the 1972 European Communities Act” so that any future treaties that transfer powers to Brussels “would be subject to a referendum – a ‘referendum lock'”.

Vowing never to take the UK into the EU’s single currency, the Tory manifesto stresses that “our amendment to the 1972 act will prevent any future government from doing so without a referendum”.

“The steady and unaccountable intrusion of the European Union into almost every aspect of our lives has gone too far,” reads the document.

Rivals Labour, meanwhile, will seek to “lead the agenda for an outward-facing European Union that delivers jobs, prosperity and global influence”.

“Our belief is that Britain is stronger in the world when the European Union is strong, and that Britain succeeds when it leads in Europe and sets the agenda for change,” reads their manifesto.

Lisbon‘s ‘ratchet clauses’

The Conservatives warned that the Lisbon Treaty contains “ratchet clauses” allowing the EU’s powers to expand in future without requiring a new treaty, and cited the potential establishment of a European Public Prosecutor’s Office as an example.

Any major transfers of power via such clauses would be subject to referenda, the Tories said, pledging never to allow a future EU public prosecutor any jurisdiction over the UK.

The Tories also pledged to return key powers over legal rights, criminal justice and employment legislation from Brussels to the UK.

Labour categorically ruled out any such possibility, stating in their manifesto that “we reject any attempt to renegotiate or unravel social rights for the British people”.

“Economic strength and social protection go hand-in-hand – a modern EU must enhance competitiveness and growth while guaranteeing security and fair rights at work,” reads their manifesto.

On enlargement, the Conservatives will “press to keep the EU’s doors open to those countries, including Turkey, that wish to join, conditional on the rigorous application of the accession criteria”.

Labour also supported Turkey’s accession bid and called for all Western Balkan states to open negotiations on EU membership by 2014.

Meanwhile, Britain’s third biggest party, the Liberal Democrats, launched their manifesto this morning with a commitment to holding “an in/out referendum [on EU membership] the next time a British government signs up for fundamental change in the relationship between the UK and the EU”.

Power to the people

Domestic headlines focused on the Conservatives’ pledge to return power to the people of Britain. Parents would be allowed to run their own schools, local residents would be able to elect their own police chiefs and voters would be able to sack poorly performing MPs.

Their manifesto, which bears the title ‘Invitation to join the government of Britain’, includes an offer to hold local referenda on any issue if 5% of residents were to back it.

“Everyone is going to have to get involved” in solving the UK’s problems as government cannot do so alone, said Cameron at yesterday’s manifesto launch, calling for the establishment of “the Big Society”. 

Meanwhile the UK Independence Party pledged in its manifesto not to field candidates against any “committed Eurosceptic” from other parties, including six Tories.

"We will be positive members of the European Union but we are clear that there should be no further extension of the EU's power over the UK without the British people's consent," reads the Conservative Party's manifesto for the 2010 election, adding: "We will never allow Britain to slide into a federal Europe."

UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown said there was a "complete hole" at the centre of the Conservative manifesto and it showed the party "hasn't changed".

"There is nothing in it to help the recovery. Indeed their measures would put the recovery at risk," he is quoted by the BBC as saying. "They are saying you are on your own. They are leaving people on their own to face the recession."

Pledging to "renew Britain" if re-elected, Brown said a fourth Labour government would be "relentless reformers" of financial markets and public services.

Launching the Liberal Democrats' manifesto this morning, leader Nick Clegg pledged to put Britain "at the heart of Europe" to ensure that the country uses its influence to achieve prosperity, security and opportunity for its people.

"Britain must work together with its partners abroad if we are to have the best hope of meeting the challenges the world faces," reads the Lib Dem manifesto, which includes a pledge "to work through the European Union to deliver a global deal on climate change".

"Liberal Democrats believe that European co-operation is the best way for Britain to be strong, safe and influential in the future. We will ensure that Britain maximises its influence through a strong and positive commitment," the manifesto states.

It continues: "But just because Europe is essential, that doesn't mean the European Union is perfect. We will continue to campaign for improved accountability, efficiency and effectiveness. Working together, the member states of the EU have a better chance of managing the impacts of globalisation".

A Lib Dem government would hold a referendum on joining the euro if the economic conditions were right.

Domestically, Clegg pledged to "hardwire fairness into British society" by pursuing polices that combine "hope and credibility". These include raising the state pension and introducing tax cuts for lower and middle-income earners.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch, leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), which advocates Britain's withdrawal from the EU, told the BBC that membership of the bloc cost the UK "colossal figures on the economic side," citing estimates of £120bn a year.

Without withdrawing from the EU, the UK will be unable to address "the deplorable and very worrying state of our economy," Pearson said.

German MEP Martin Schulz, leader of the Socialists & Democrats group in the European Parliament, today challenged UK Conservative leader David Cameron to "come clean" over his alliances with right-wing parties in other EU countries.

"Mr Cameron needs to be open and honest about his intentions. After last year's EU elections, he abandoned the centre-right grouping of [French President Nicolas] Sarkozy and [German Chancellor Angela] Merkel in favour of a new alliance with Eurosceptic and partially anti-European politicians, mainly Eastern Europe," Schulz said.

"Now his old partners in the pro-European centre-right group, the European People's Party, claim publicly that he is ready to rejoin their ranks if he manages to win the elections. It appears that Mr Cameron now sees what a grave mistake he made and he needs to clear this up."

"People across Europe, not just the United Kingdom, have a right to know just where Mr Cameron stands on EU issues today," Schulz claimed, adding: "I am writing to Mr Cameron, inviting him to clarify this matter and reveal whether a Conservative government would rejoin mainstream European politics or continue to stand on the sidelines of decision-making in Brussels and Strasbourg."   

The UK will hold a general election on 6 May, which could bring down the curtain on 13 years of rule by the Labour Party.

Incumbent Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who succeeded Tony Blair in 2007, begins the campaign as the underdog. With Brown's popularity ratings having been low for much of his tenure, observers have long predicted an easy win for David Cameron's Conservative Party.

However, Brown has staged something of a comeback in recent weeks and Cameron's lead has narrowed. The prospect of a hung parliament – where neither of the larger parties has an outright majority of seats – means the Liberal Democrats could play a decisive role in deciding who becomes the UK's next prime minister (EURACTIV 10/03/10).

  • 6 May: UK general election.

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