Relax — we don’t need wishful thinking

Ed Miliband’s speech yesterday has already given rise to a raft of wishful thinking from europhobes and europhiles alike.

Ed’s main main message was absolutely clear: he said no to matching Cameron’s pledge to hold an EU referendum. Indeed, he has already won plaudits from some unexpected quarters for the shrewdness of this strategy, including Lord Ashcroft on the Conservative Home website. And, writing for no less eminent a right-wing journal than The Spectator, Alex Massie agrees:

Let the Tories huff and puff about Europe all they like. Let them punch themselves out. They will tire and more importantly — in this instance — the public will tire of a party ceaselessly banging on about sodding Europe all the time. The Tories will make crackpots of themselves and the public, however sympathetic it might be towards eccentrics, won’t elect a divided party dominated by crackpottery.

Or, to put it another way, it may be that Miliband has given the Tories enough rope with which to hang themselves. Worse still, they will do so cheerfully.

Nonetheless, several commentators have latched on to Ed’s remark that any theoretical future transfer of powers from the UK to the EU would trigger a referendum. Perhaps it’s not surprising that eurosceptics see a glimmer of hope in this for the fulfilment of their obsession.

More surprising, perhaps, is the line taken today by the pro-EU group British Influence in Europe, in an editorial claiming that Labour too is now committed to a referendum, just on a slightly longer timetable than Cameron!

[Ed’s pledge] was anything other than a fudge. What it meant was that all parties are now agreed that an in/out referendum will happen. Should he be in power, Cameron will call a vote after seeking powers back from Brussels. Miliband before powers leave to Brussels.

Of course, the British Influence group are probably worried about their raison d’être and perhaps their financing, now that the prospect of a referendum is remote. But attempts by either side to talk up the hypothetical scenario mentioned by Miliband are disingenuous. Let’s look at the facts.

In general, the EU now has broadly the field of competence that most member states agree it should have. So the likelihood of European countries agreeing to transfer new fields of responsibility to the European level are actually quite small. The real arguments are more about how it exercises those competences, and the policy choices made within its existing remit.

Many campaigners therefore latch onto the argument that the eurozone needs further integration. This may be so, even though much has already been done in that respect. But if the eurozone decides to go this way, this would be a pooling of powers purely among countries that use the euro, and so it would not constitute a transfer of powers from the UK to the European Union. It would therefore not trigger a referendum — not under the scenario described by Ed Miliband, and nor under the terms of the coalition government’s EU Act.

The moral of the story is simple. British Influence and other europhile organisations should relax, and continue to make the case for Britain and Europe — something they can surely do even more effectively without the prospect of a referendum on British exit hanging over their heads.

(Photo by Christian Guther, made available under the Creative Commons licence.)

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