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The main parties agree on the EU far more than they suggest

Beyond the bluster and rhetoric, there is a surprising degree of consensus on the reforms needed.

A surprising degree of consensus.
"Many of the flashpoints in the UK-EU relationship are constant regardless of which party is in government." Photograph: Getty Images.

A casual observer of the EU debate in Westminster could be forgiven for drawing the following conclusions: the Lib Dems are the party of IN, UKIP are the party of OUT. Labour are ambivalent but the issue serves as a useful stick with which to beat the Tories, who in turn are deeply divided and holding out for a renegotiation which everyone else agrees is not forthcoming. Looking beyond the bluster and rhetoric, however, the three established parties agree far more often than the superficial analysis outlined above would suggest.

This is not to say that Labour, the Tories and the Lib Dems are indistinguishable when it comes to the EU; there are very real differences between and within the parties on certain policy areas, tone, strategy and their broader vision for the UK’s role in the world. But when it comes to the details, there is a surprising degree of consensus owing to the widespread recognition that reform is necessary. Ultimately, many of the flashpoints in the UK-EU relationship are constant regardless of which party is in government.

The currency issue is a good example; given that almost no one now believes the UK should join the euro, the question is how the UK should respond to deeper eurozone integration in the future. A situation in which the euro states could write the rules for the EU as a whole would be hugely detrimental to the UK’s interests, and all three parties have explicitly called for safeguards to protect the single market as part of any new treaty negotiations.

There is also broad agreement on the need to make the EU more competitive, to reduce the burden of itslaws on businesses, and to reform the budget and the CAP in particular (even if, it has to be said, Labour made little progress on these fronts when in government).  In terms of trade, all parties support further liberalisation of the single market, particularly in services, and the EU-US free trade agreement (TTIP).

When it comes to financial services, the broad consensus is well masked. While Labour under Miliband has adopted a confrontational attitude towards bankers, others in the party are more pragmatic and there is chance it would participate in an EU-only Financial Transactions Tax. When it emerged the UK was challenging the European cap on bankers’ bonuses, it was telling that Ed Balls questioned the government’s choice of priorities, rather than the decision itself.

When it come to the emotive subject of EU immigration, Labour has said it was wrong not to impose transitional controls on the A8 countries, and it is likely that all three parties will push for tougher controls on new member states. Likewise when it comes to EU migrants’ access to benefits, all parties have taken a tough stance in favour of tougher conditionality, and all three have condemned the Commission for its legal challenge against the UK’s right to reside test designed to prevent abuse of the UK welfare system.

The parties also agree the EU faces serious problems of democratic legitimacy, which is why both the Conservatives and Labour support giving national parliaments an emergency break (red card) over EU legislation. The Lib Dems have also argued for a greater role for national parliaments in EU policy-making. Meanwhile, Labour have refused to endorse Martin Schulz as the Socialists candidate for Commission President due to his overtly federalist views.

On the thorny question of bringing powers back to the UK, the debate tends to generate more heat than light. Labour have become fixated on what Conservative MPs may or may not accept in any renegotiation, while Nick Clegg famously described the unilateral repatriation of powers as a "false promise wrapped in a Union Jack".  But when looking at specific policy areas, it is clear there is a degree of cross-party consensus.

The reform of the EU’s disastrous fisheries policy will see decision-making devolved from Brussels to the regional level while the dropping of binding EU renewables targets in favour of non-binding ones – a policy backed by Lib Dem Energy Secretary Ed Davey – will see member states regaining a degree of control over their energy policies. Likewise, there is support in all three parties to limit EU regional subsidies to poorer member states, a policy drawn up by Gordon Brown when he was Chancellor. This incremental approach to bringing powers back may admittedly fall short of the grand, treaty-based approach sought by many MPs and commentators, but it again demonstrates that on substance, the parties can agree.

The biggest difference is Cameron’s pledge to actively renegotiate Britain’s terms of membership ahead of a 2017 referendum, while the other parties seem content to wait until treaty change is next on the table before fleshing out their respective reform agendas. This would then most likely be put to a referendum which for all intents and purposes would be an in/out vote.

This brings us to another crucial distinction; the threshold for staying in. Most Tory MPs will wait to see what the final deal is before committing one way or another, whereas a majority of Labour and Lib Dem MPs would be content to stay in on the existing terms. This is a big gamble on their part as polls have shown that while a majority currently back leaving the EU, given the choice of staying in a less integrated/reformed EU, this is the option that attracts most support among Tory, Labour and Lib Dem voters, and even among a significant chunk of UKIP voters.

If Cameron fails to remain in office after 2015 we are unlikely to have a referendum in 2017. But one way or another, the Europe question cannot be postponed indefinitely. In the meantime, those expecting that UK-EU relations to be much smoother under a Labour or Labour/Lib Dem coalition than under a Cameron-led government would be mistaken.

Pawel Swidlicki is research analyst at Open Europe