"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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The Taliban's succession crisis will not diminish its resilience

Haibatullah Akhunzada's appointment as leader of the Taliban may put stress on the movement, but is unlikely to dampen its insurgency. 

After 19 years under the guidance of the Taliban’s supreme leader Mullah Omar, the group has now faced two succession crises in under a year. But although Haibatullah Akhunzada’s appointment as leader of the Taliban will likely put stress on the movement, it shows few signals of diminishing its renewed insurgency.

The news pretty much ends speculation about former leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour’s death in a US airstrike in Pakistan’s south-western Baluchistan province, which was criticised by Islamabad as a violation of its sovereignty.

The Taliban would have prepared extensively for this eventuality. The fast appointment, following days of intense council, appears to be a conspicuous act of decisiveness. It stands in contrast to the two-year delay the movement faced in announcing the death of the Mullah Omar. It will be not be lost on the Taliban that it was subterfuge around the death of Mullah Omar that caused the fracture within the movement which in turn led to the establishment of an ISIS presence in the country.

The appointment is a victory for the Taliban old guard. As former head of the Taliban's judiciary and Mullah Mansour’s deputy, in many ways, Haibatullah is a natural successor. Haibatullah, described by Afghanistan expert Sami Yousafzai as a “stone age Mullah,” demonstrates the Taliban’s inherent tendency to resort to tradition rather than innovation during times of internal crisis.

The decision taken by the Taliban to have an elder statesman of the group at the helm highlights the increasing marginalisation of the Haqqani network, a powerful subset within the Taliban that has been waging an offensive against the government and coalition forces in northwest Pakistan.

Sirajuddin Haqqani, the leader of the Haqqani network who already has a bounty of 5 million dollars on his head, was touted in some Taliban circles as a potential successor, however the decision to overlook him is a conservative move from the Taliban. 

The Taliban’s leadership of the jihad against the Afghan government is hinged on their claims to religious legitimacy, something the group will hope to affirm through the Haibatullah’s jurisprudential credentials. This assertion of authority has particular significance given the rise of ISIS elements in the country. The last two Taliban chiefs have both declared themselves to be amir ul-momineen or ‘leader of the faithful,’ providing a challenge to the parallel claims of ISIS’ Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

Any suggestions that Mansour’s death will lead to the unravelling of the Taliban are premature. The military targeting of prominent jihadi leaders within group structures has been seen in operations against the leadership of ISIS, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and other groups.

In recent research for the Centre on Religion & Geopolitics, we found that it is often less prominent jihadis that play an integral role in keeping the movement alive. Targeted killings do create a void, but this often comes at the expense of addressing the wider support base and ideological draw of militant outfits. This is particularly relevant with a relatively decentralised movement like the Taliban.

Such operations can spur activity. If the example of the Taliban’s previous leadership succession is to be heeded, we might expect renewed attacks across Afghanistan, beyond the group’s strongholds near the eastern border with Pakistan. The brief capture of Kunduz, Afghanistan's fifth-largest city, at the end of September 2015, was a show of strength to answer the numerous internal critics of Mullah Mansour’s new leadership of the movement.

In a news cycle dominated by reports of ISIS, and to a diminishing extent al-Qaeda, atrocities, it is important to comprehend the renewed brutality of the Afghan insurgency.  Data from the Centre on Religion and Geopolitics Global Extremism Monitor found a seventeen per cent rise in fatalities from March to April, marking the start of the Taliban’s spring fighting season. A suicide attack in central Kabul on the headquarters of an elite military unit that killed 64 people was the single most deadly act of terror around the world in the month of April, and the group’s bloodiest attack in the Afghan capital for years. Reports this morning of a suicide attack on a bus killing 10 staff from an appeal court west of Kabul, suggests that the violence shows no sign of diminishing under the new leadership.

All these developments come during a period of renewed impetus behind international peace talks. Last week representatives from Pakistan were joined by delegates from Afghanistan, the United States, and China in an attempt to restart the stalled negotiation process with the Taliban.

Haibatullah Akhunzada’s early leadership moves will be watched closely by these countries, as well as dissonant voices within the movement, to ascertain what the Taliban does next, in a period of unprecedented challenge for the infamously resilient movement. 

Milo Comerford is a South and Central Asia Analyst for the Centre on Religion and Geopolitics