Well, it finally happened: Today, Brexit has become a real possibility – maybe not in the next couple of years but possibly in the long term. Under a Labour government and in the unlikely event of a new EU treaty Ed Miliband promised an in/out referendum in the UK – if “new powers are transferred to the EU”. There are few problems with this:
1) I don’t think any Labour government can ever win an in/out referendum in the UK. It will be impossible for Labour to win against the Tories in opposition and the anti-EU media in the UK.
2) One can only hope that Miliband will never have to implement his “in/out referendum policy”. It’s a recipe for disaster. What does it mean to ‘transfer new powers to the EU’? Even if it’s a treaty for the eurozone only, public opinion in the UK will perceive it as another “broken promise” if he decides not to go for the referendum.
3) Ed Miliband’s referendum lock is a new level of how to blackmail the rest of the EU. Under a Labour government any new EU treaty negotiation will always be linked to “Brexit” – not the best starting point for any negotiation over a new EU treaty.
4) It is one thing to promise a referendum over a new EU treaty. Indeed, this can be perceived as a good thing (although I disagree with the idea of having referendums on these things) but linking an in/out referendum to a new treaty that transfers ‘new powers’ is utter bollocks. There are bad treaties but the in/out question will always overshadow specific treaty issues. This is neither democratic nor strategically clever. Basically you blackmail your own population: “Accept this treaty or we leave the EU” – hardly a democratic approach! (or are we talking about 2 referendums in the case of a new treaty?)
Of course this policy can pay off in the short term (= until the next general election that is) but is it a viable strategy? Yes, it keeps Britain in the EU as long as there is no new EU treaty (and chances of it happening are minimal, except for a eurozone treaty). Miliband may manage to keep the ‘Europe question’ off the agenda in the years ahead (which is a good thing!) The “EU question” is also not one of the main concerns of the British public so everything that makes Europe a boring topic is a positive development. Plus the British and international media seem to buy the line that “Miliband rejects EU referendum in 2017″. Fair enough, but what will happen in the unlikely event of a new treaty? If this becomes part of the British approach to the EU it is likely that we will never see another EU-wide treaty again. Expect more agreements that legally resemble Schengen, the Euro and the Fiscal compact. It is clear that Miliband does not want to have a in/out referendum – but why did he not say it like this? Opposing an in/out referendum and defending EU membership – this would have been a clear policy. (And, remember: there is still the ‘normal’ referendum lock on power transfers/new treaties that has been passed by the present government a few years ago)
So, what is the lesson here? Politicians always think they can ‘match’ a policy with something that sounds similar to the policy of their main rival . But this race to the bottom never works. You can’t beat the original. On the EU, the Conservatives can’t beat UKIP and Labour can’t beat the Conservatives.
[PS: I thought I'd never say this but I think I prefer the 'in/out referendum policy' of the Tories. Hmm...]