Clegg's EU referendum move raises the pressure on Miliband

The Deputy PM has said it is now a question of "when, not if" a referendum will be held. Does Miliband agree?

Nick Clegg's declaration at PMQs that it is now a question of "when, not if" an EU referendum will be held was a significant advancement on his previous position. The Deputy Prime Minister has long supported the coalition's "referendum lock", under which a vote is triggered whenever there is a transfer of powers to Brussels, but this is the first time that he has suggested that one will be held at some point in the next three-four years.

It remains unclear whether Clegg believes this would be a yes/no referendum on a new treaty or an in/out vote on EU membership. The referendum lock, introduced through the government's European Union Bill, suggests the former but the Lib Dems' 2010 manifesto, which said that an in/out referendum should be held "the next time a British government signs up for fundamental change in the relationship between the UK and the EU", suggests the latter. At PMQs, Clegg misleadingly conflated the two, stating: "That's what we had in our last manifesto and that's what we have now acted on in government by passing legislation together in the coalition just two years ago."

But this ambiguity is less important than the fact that he now believes some kind of referendum is inevitable. One question that follows is how Labour will respond. In an interview in January, Ed Miliband explicitly stated that he would not repeal the coalition's referendum lock ("there is legislation on the books that we don't intend repealing," he said) but has yet to say whether or not he believes a vote will or should be held in the next four years. Clegg's move means it will now be harder for him to avoid answering this question. 

Ed Miliband speaks at the CBI's annual conference on November 19, 2012 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Europe's elections show why liberals should avoid fatalism

France, Germany and the Netherlands suggest there is nothing inevitable about the right's advance.

Humans are unavoidably pattern-seeking creatures. We give meaning to disparate events where little or none may exist. So it is with Brexit and Donald Trump. The proximity of these results led to declarations of liberalism's demise. After decades of progress, the tide was said to have unavoidably turned.

Every election is now treated as another round in the great duel between libralism and populism. In the Netherlands, the perennial nativist Geert Wilders was gifted outsize attention in the belief that he could surf the Brexit-Trump wave to victory. Yet far from triumphing, the Freedom Party finished a distant second, increasing its seats total to 20 (four fewer than in 2010). Wilders' defeat was always more likely than not (and he would have been unable to form a government) but global events gifted him an aura of invincibility.

In France, for several years, Marine Le Pen has been likely to make the final round of the next presidential election. But it was only after Brexit and Trump's election that she was widely seen as a potential victor. As in 2002, the front républicain is likely to defeat the Front National. The winner, however, will not be a conservative but a liberal. According to the post-Trump narrative, Emmanuel Macron's rise should have been impossible. But his surge (albeit one that has left him tied with Le Pen in the first round) suggests liberalism is in better health than suggested.

In Germany, where the far-right Alternative für Deutschland was said to be remorselessly advancing, politics is returning to traditional two-party combat. The election of Martin Schulz has transformed the SPD's fortunes to the point where it could form the next government. As some Labour MPs resign themselves to perpeutal opposition, they could be forgiven for noting what a difference a new leader can make.

2016 will be forever remembered as the year of Brexit and Trump. Yet both events could conceivably have happened in liberalism's supposed heyday. The UK has long been the EU's most reluctant member and, having not joined the euro or the Schengen Zone, already had one foot outside the door. In the US, the conditions for the election of a Trump-like figure have been in place for decades. For all this, Leave only narrowly won and Hillary Clinton won three million more votes than her opponent. Liberalism is neither as weak as it is now thought, nor as strong as it was once thought.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.