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.

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Beware Tory Brexiteers trying to wreck EU negotiations

It is not in the interests of either moderate Tories or the opposition to let them. 

Our government has promised the United Kingdom the exact same benefits when it leaves the European Union that we have enjoyed while in. 

In the words of David Davis, Brexit secretary, the government’s plan is “a comprehensive free-trade agreement and a comprehensive customs agreement that will deliver the exact same benefits as we have".

The negotiations that lie ahead are unprecedented and will be difficult and complex. It’s unlikely a deal will be reached in two years that can guarantee what Davis has promised - and what Labour holds the government to account on, as outlined this week by my colleague Sir Keir Stamer. But reaching a deal we must. It would be economic and political idiocy not to.

We know that those on the EU’s side of negotiations are not willing to negotiate on trade or customs without first making a deal on the Irish border, treatment of EU nationals in the UK and UK nationals in the EU, and money owed. If these are not agreed to, we will have no deal at all.

In precise terms, a leaked letter from the European Parliament said the UK should pay all its liabilities “arising from outstanding commitments as well as make provision for off-balance sheet items, contingent liabilities and other financial costs that arise directly as a result of its withdrawal”.

It added that without a withdrawal agreement on citizens’ rights, the financial settlement and the border in Ireland, the UK “would exit automatically the union on 30 March 2019 and this in a disorderly manner”.

Brussels estimates the bill to be around €60bn. Aside from the fact we will need to pay (or be open to negotiating some of the bill) as a prerequisite for future negotiations, it is the right approach to take. These are liabilities stemming from obligations that our country has made. It would not be right to renege on them simply because we do not want to pay. And, if we want a co-operative relationship in the future, we must be reasonable and willing to negotiate now.

Yet there is a small cohort of Conservative MPs that are saying just that.

Tory MP Bernard Jenkin's response on the potential of failing to reach a trade deal? “If they want us to pay too much for that, we say no, that’s okay, we’ll pay the tariffs." He laster added that we “won’t have to pay a penny if we don’t want to”. Earlier this month, when asked about the prospect of paying our bills, Foreign secretary Boris Johnson responded: “I think we have illustrious precedent in this matter: I think you can recall the 1984 Fontainebleau summit in which Mrs Thatcher said she wanted her money back and I think that is exactly what we will get.”

This is not a party political matter. Former Tory frontbencher Nicky Morgan  has said there are some members of her party who seem to want to pick a fight with the EU and not strike a very positive tone.

This negative tone is the least of our worries. There are legitimate fears in many corners of Westminster that a small group of Conservative MPs are trying to highjack the EU negotiations, get a number of newspapers on side, and refuse to pay a penny with the specified goal of crashing of the negotiations and bouncing Britain onto World Trade Organisation rules.

We know this would be devastating for our economy, for jobs, and for investment. Failing to reach a deal would be bad for everyone, but particularly for the UK.

True enough, Davis has acknowledged that the UK should pay something, but that the amount is open to negotiation.

The Prime Minister must stand up strongly to a small group of her own party’s backbenchers, who are actively trying to disrupt her efforts to negotiate with the EU.

Catherine West is the Labour MP for Hornsey and Wood Green.