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

Pawel Swidlicki is research analyst at Open Europe

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Meet Anne Marie Waters - the Ukip politician too extreme for Nigel Farage

In January 2016, Waters launched Pegida UK with former EDL frontman Steven Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson). 

There are few people in British political life who can be attacked from the left by Nigel Farage. Yet that is where Anne Marie Waters has found herself. And by the end of September she could well be the new leader of Ukip, a party almost synonymous with its beer-swilling, chain-smoking former leader.

Waters’s political journey is a curious one. She started out on the political left, but like Oswald Mosley before her, has since veered dramatically to the right. That, however, is where the similarities end. Waters is Irish, agnostic, a lesbian and a self-proclaimed feminist.

But it is her politics – rather than who she is – that have caused a stir among Ukip’s old guard. Former leader Paul Nuttall has said that her views make him “uncomfortable” while Farage has claimed Ukip is “finished” if, under her leadership, it becomes an anti-Islam party.

In her rhetoric, Waters echoes groups such as the English Defence League (EDL) and Britain First. She has called Islam “evil” and her leadership manifesto claims that the religion has turned Britain into a “fearful and censorious society”. Waters wants the banning of the burqa, the closure of all sharia councils and a temporary freeze on all immigration.

She started life in Dublin before moving to Germany in her teens to work as an au pair. Waters also lived in the Netherlands before returning to Britain to study journalism at Nottingham Trent University, graduating in 2003. She subsequently gained a second degree in law. It was then, she says, that she first learnt about Islam, which she claims treats women “like absolute dirt”. Now 39, Waters is a full-time campaigner who lives in Essex with her two dogs and her partner who is an accountant.

Waters’s first spell of serious activism was with the campaign group One Law for All, a secularist organisation fronted by the Iranian feminist and human rights activist Maryam Namazie. Waters resigned in November 2013 after four years with the organisation. According to Namazie, Waters left due to political disagreements over whether the group should collaborate with members of far-right groups.

In April 2014, Waters founded Sharia Watch UK and, in January 2016, she launched Pegida UK with former EDL frontman Steven Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson). The group was established as a British chapter of the German-based organisation and was set up to counter what it called the “Islamisation of our countries”. By the summer of 2016, it had petered out.

Waters twice stood unsuccessfully to become a Labour parliamentary candidate. Today, she says she could not back Labour due to its “betrayal of women” and “betrayal of the country” over Islam. After joining Ukip in 2014, she first ran for political office in the Lambeth council election, where she finished in ninth place. At the 2015 general election, Waters stood as the party’s candidate in Lewisham East, finishing third with 9.1 per cent of the vote. She was chosen to stand again in the 2016 London Assembly elections but was deselected after her role in Pegida UK became public. Waters was also prevented from standing in Lewisham East at the 2017 general election after Ukip’s then-leader Nuttall publicly intervened.

The current favourite of the 11 candidates standing to succeed Nuttall is deputy leader Peter Whittle, with Waters in second. Some had hoped the party’s top brass would ban her from standing but last week its national executive approved her campaign.

Due to an expected low turnout, the leadership contest is unpredictable. Last November, Nuttall was elected with just 9,622 votes. More than 1,000 new members reportedly joined Ukip in a two-week period earlier this year, prompting fears of far-right entryism.

Mike Hookem MEP has resigned as Ukip’s deputy whip over Waters’ candidacy, saying he would not “turn a blind eye” to extremism. By contrast, chief whip, MEP Stuart Agnew, is a supporter and has likened her to Joan of Arc. Waters is also working closely on her campaign with Jack Buckby, a former BNP activist and one of the few candidates to run against Labour in the by-election for Jo Cox’s former seat of Batley and Spen. Robinson is another backer.

Peculiarly for someone running to be the leader of a party, Waters does not appear to relish public attention. “I’m not a limelight person,” she recently told the Times. “I don’t like being phoned all the time.”

The journalist Jamie Bartlett, who was invited to the initial launch of Pegida UK in Luton in 2015, said of Waters: “She failed to remember the date of the demo. Her head lolled, her words were slurred, and she appeared to almost fall asleep while Tommy [Robinson] was speaking. After 10 minutes it all ground to an uneasy halt.”

In an age when authenticity is everything, it would be a mistake to underestimate yet another unconventional politician. But perhaps British Muslims shouldn’t panic about Anne Marie Waters just yet.

James Bloodworth is editor of Left Foot Forward

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear