By Pieter Cranenbroek – International Politics Blogger
The European elections won’t be held for another two months but the four biggest political parties in Britain are already warming up to it.
After Nick Clegg challenged Nigel Farage to an old-fashioned duel, Ed Miliband and David Cameron have been dragged into the Europe debate as well. Let’s hope two things will have become clear to the British voter by the end of May: the European elections do matter and Britain, for Europe’s sake and its own, needs to stay put.
Whichever way you look at it, Clegg publicly inviting Farage to a one-on-one debate on Europe was a ballsy move. Taking on a populist with whom you barely compete for voters on a topic in his comfort zone is admirable. Clegg’s advisers may certainly have whispered in his ear that a strong performance in a face off with Farage could help remind former Lib Dem voters why they used to vote for them. Still, it doesn’t alter the fact that the pressure will mostly be on Clegg’s shoulders.
Farage will be able to repeat his same old rhetoric and even a weak performance from his side is unlikely to cost him any Eurosceptic voters. For Clegg there’s much more at stake: in order to convincingly argue how his party positively differs from its coalition partner he will need to bring his best game. In any case, the Lib Dem leader will offer Britons a different perspective from the broken record that is Ukip.
The head-to-head debates between the Deputy Prime Minister and Farage are likely to bring a desperately needed balance to Britain’s EU debate, but Clegg’s charge has had another positive effect as it led to a response from Labour. To prevent that the European elections will become a two party show between the ‘party of in’ and the ‘party of out’.
Ed Miliband felt the need to clarify his party’s position by publishing a comment piece in the Financial Times. It took him a while but the leader of the Labour party has finally formulated a clear Europe policy: Britain will not leave the EU under a Labour government, but Miliband will consult the British electorate in case of a treaty change. All in all very reasonable, however, the strongest aspect of his Europe policy is that he puts it into perspective. Europe is not a priority for British citizens, despite what an increasingly obsessive Tory party might want them to believe. By promising to devote his energy to resolving the cost of living crisis and unemployment, he proves that he understands the concerns of the people better than the Conservatives.
Cameron, on the other hand, is trying to portray the Tories as the ‘party of choice’, but this is rather misleading. In reality, Cameron gambled and lost. He hoped an EU referendum proposal would appease the Eurosceptics in his party and it backfired. Cameron made his bed and he can’t back out of a referendum as much as he would like to. Furthermore, the Prime Minister’s renegotiation plan is a joke; he will never succeed in accomplishing a treaty change that will be as comprehensive as he needs it to be by 2017.
The direct democracy card Cameron likes to play is horribly misplaced. After all, where was the Tory referendum when the government pushed through a comprehensive health care reform that negatively impacted more British lives than any EU directive ever will? Hand-picking a referendum on an issue that might actually go your way is not seeking public consultation; that is merely a desire for public confirmation.
Referenda can be a useful tool, but only when the people voting are well informed on the matter. Having a referendum on EU membership when 56 per cent of British citizens admitted not to understand how the EU works in a 2013 Eurobarometer survey is not likely to lead to an informed decision, regardless of the outcome.
The apparent lack of knowledge about the EU has more serious implications though. It fosters a climate in which Farage and certain British media can keep making statements about the EU that are blatantly untrue while it may cover up the fact that Farage and his party members are absolutely worthless. Ukip Members of the European Parliament have the worst attendance record and are generally considered the laziest MEPs. If you are concerned about bureaucrats in Brussels wasting British resources, then perhaps a first step would be to elect politicians that can be bothered to show up and actually represent British interests.
Britain belongs at the heart of the EU and reform will have to come from within. The more British politicians will actively participate in Europe, the more Europe will act in the interests of Britain. It really is as simple as that. It is true that Europe needs Britain for its political and economic stability, but Britain needs Europe as well. Economically, Britain will need access to the single European market and leaving the EU would mean that it will have to abide by its rules without having a say in the process. Politically, Britain will find that even if it transferred all of its power back to London, it will be unable to regulate a number of key policy areas in a globalising world.
As for the European elections, Clegg will be looking to redeem himself, Farage will sing his one song, Cameron will be hoping he won’t have to lie in the grave he dug for himself, and Miliband, it seems, has finally gotten the message: a better Europe starts with yourself.