The Tories have descended into madness on Europe - Labour should leave them to it

Ed Miliband should hold his nerve and resist demands to make his own hasty referendum pledge.

Rarely has the Conservative Party looked less like "the natural party of government" and more like a sixth form debating society. In a desperate final attempt to appease his carnivorous backbenchers, David Cameron gave way last night and agreed to a publish a draft EU referendum bill. It would not be a piece of government legislation (despite recent appearances to the contrary, this remains a coalition) but it could be taken forward by a plucky eurosceptic as a private members' bill. "Surely they'll be happy now?", the Prime Minister said (or words to that effect).

His plea for a reprieve was rejected as hastily as it was offered. Appearing on BBC News, John Baron, one of the MPs responsible for tabling the Queen's Speech amendment, simply replied: "not enough". Accusing Cameron of "panic" (he was right about that), he confirmed that he would not be withdrawing the amendment and urged all Tory ministers to vote for it. Disregarding the inconvenient fact that the Conservatives did not win the last election, he insisted that only a bill with the imprimatur of the government would suffice. Nadine Dorries, meanwhile, fresh from a party to celebrate her return to the Conservative fold, warned that a referendum in 2017 was too late, going on to repeat her demand for the Tories to run co-candidates with UKIP at the general election (the two could have a "joint logo", she mused). Once again, Cameron has tried and failed to appease the unappeasable. 

Even now, as the Conservative Party descends into the depths of euromania, there are some on the left and the right who argue that it is Labour that should be worried. Don't the opinion polls show that the public overwhelmingly support a referendum on EU membership? True, but then the polls invariably show that, if offered a say on any issue, the voters always favour it. The salient point remains that just 1 per cent of them regard it as "the most important issue" facing Britain (compared to apparently 90 per cent of Tory backbenchers) and just 7 per cent regard it as "one of the most important issues". The more time the Conservatives spend "banging on" about Europe, the less time they spend talking about the issues - the economy, jobs, housing, public services - that might actually help them win the next election. 

For this reason, among others, Ed Miliband has been right not to match Cameron's pledge of an in/out referendum. To do so now would be an act of supreme political weakness. In this instance, little is required of the Labour leader other than to stand back and watch the Conservatives indulge in another bout of political self-harm.

Those commentators who declared Cameron's referendum pledge a masterstroke that would unite the Tories, scupper UKIP and revive his party's poll ratings were wrong on every count. Miliband's own problems may be far from trivial but the longer the Tories appear to have given up listening the voters, the greater the chance that the voters will give up listening to them. 

David Cameron attends a press conference at the EU Headquarters on March 15, 2013 in Brussels. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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The EU’s willingness to take on Google shows just how stupid Brexit is

Outside the union the UK will be in a far weaker position to stand up for its citizens.

Google’s record €2.4bn (£2.12bn) fine for breaching European competition rules is an eye-catching example of the EU taking on the Silicon Valley giants. It is also just one part of a larger battle to get to grips with the influence of US-based web firms.

From fake news to tax, the European Commission has taken the lead in investigating and, in this instance, sanctioning, the likes of Google, Facebook, Apple and Amazon for practices it believes are either anti-competitive for European business or detrimental to the lives of its citizens.

Only in May the commission fined Facebook €110m for providing misleading information about its takeover of WhatsApp. In January, it issued a warning to Facebook over its role in spreading fake news. Last summer, it ordered Apple to pay an extra €13bn in tax it claims should have been paid in Ireland (the Irish government had offered a tax break). Now Google has been hit for favouring its own price comparison services in its search results. In other words, consumers who used Google to find the best price for a product across the internet were in fact being gently nudged towards the search engine giant's own comparison website.

As European Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager put it:

"Google has come up with many innovative products and services that have made a difference to our lives. That's a good thing. But Google's strategy for its comparison shopping service wasn't just about attracting customers by making its product better than those of its rivals. Instead, Google abused its market dominance as a search engine by promoting its own comparison shopping service in its search results, and demoting those of competitors.

"What Google has done is illegal under EU antitrust rules. It denied other companies the chance to compete on the merits and to innovate. And most importantly, it denied European consumers a genuine choice of services and the full benefits of innovation."

The border-busting power of these mostly US-based digital companies is increasingly defining how people across Europe and the rest of the world live their lives. It is for the most part hugely beneficial for the people who use their services, but the EU understandably wants to make sure it has some control over them.

This isn't about beating up on the tech companies. They are profit-maximising entities that have their own goals and agendas, and that's perfectly fine. But it's vital to to have a democratic entity that can represent the needs of its citizens. So far the EU has proved the only organisation with both the will and strength to do so.

The US Federal Communications Commission could also do more to provide a check on their power, but has rarely shown the determination to do so. And this is unlikely to change under Donald Trump - the US Congress recently voted to block proposed FCC rules on telecoms companies selling user data.

Other countries such as China have resisted the influence of the internet giants, but primarily by simply cutting off their access and relying on home-grown alternatives it can control better.  

And so it has fallen to the EU to fight to ensure that its citizens get the benefits of the digital revolution without handing complete control over our online lives to companies based far away.

It's a battle that the UK has never seemed especially keen on, and one it will be effectively retreat from when it leaves the EU.

Of course the UK government is likely to continue ramping up rhetoric on issues such as encryption, fake news and the dissemination of extremist views.

But after Brexit, its bargaining power will be weak, especially if the priority becomes bringing in foreign investment to counteract the impact Brexit will have on our finances. Unlike Ireland, we will not be told that offering huge tax breaks broke state aid rules. But if so much economic activity relies on their presence will our MPs and own regulatory bodies decide to stand up for the privacy rights of UK citizens?

As with trade, when it comes to dealing with large transnational challenges posed by the web, it is far better to be part of a large bloc speaking as one than a lone voice.

Companies such as Google and Facebook owe much of their success and power to their ability to easily transcend borders. It is unsurprising that the only democratic institution prepared and equipped to moderate that power is also built across borders.

After Brexit, Europe will most likely continue to defend the interests of its citizens against the worst excesses of the global web firms. But outside the EU, the UK will have very little power to resist them.

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