Europe was always going to be a fight for the Coalition. With the Liberal Democrats advocating pro-European policies and the increasingly Eurosceptic Conservatives viewing the EU as the cause of, not the solution to many of the UK’s problems, tensions were always going to run high. Add in the recent electoral success of UKIP then you have a very real problem for the coalition.
In order to reconcile these differences, the Coalition Agreement pledged that it was the Government’s goal to position Britain as a leading player within the European Union as a positive participant. However, in order to sate Tory backbenchers fiercely opposed to the EU, it also pledged that no further powers should be transferred to Brussels without a referendum.
Whilst both Cameron and Clegg would have likely hoped that this agreement would have kept Europe off the agenda and appeased Eurosceptic and Europhiles alike, the reality has proved to be much more difficult.
For instance, the decision by the Prime Minister to use his veto to stop revisions to the Lisbon Treaty in defence of the City of London, and a pledge to hold an in/out referendum on British membership of the EU, have only reinforced the view of the UK as an awkward partner that needs to make up its mind about Europe. The difficulties that the coalition is facing in Europe are reflected by the fact that it has only delivered on 33% of its Coalition Agreement pledges so far.
Despite this gloomy picture, it is fair to say that the Government has achieved some progress in Europe. Specifically, the British Government was able to secure agreement on a single European Patent and has played a leading role in EU trade negotiations with the USA, Japan and Georgia. The Coalition has also proved effective in furthering its green agenda at a European level by helping to secure a second commitment period of the Kyoto protocol. Most notably, the Prime Minister led the successful efforts to introduce the first real-terms cut in the EU budget spending.
However despite these successes, there is a strong feeling amongst Conservative backbenchers that not enough is being done. After defeating a motion to grant a referendum on EU membership, at which the PM suffered the largest post war rebellion as 81 Tory MPs defied the whip, he later changed his mind and promised a referendum if the Conservatives were to win the election. Not only has this reopened inter-coalition tensions, but it has not satisfied Conservative backbenchers who are now calling for the referendum to be conducted before the next election.
This issue of Europe promises to be a difficult one for the Coalition over the next couple of years.
Progress against the Coalition Agreement
Pledge: We will ensure that the British Government is a positive participant in the European Union, playing a strong and positive role with our partners, with the goal of ensuring that all the nations of Europe are equipped to face the challenges of the 21st century: global competitiveness, global warming and global poverty.
Status: In progress – The British Government has made some positive contributions to the work of the European Union, including: securing agreement on a single European Patent; playing a prominent role in EU trade negotiations, notably with Japan, Georgia, Moldova and the USA; and helping to adopt a second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol. These activities represent some progress in preparing Europe to address key global challenges. However, the Prime Minister has also strained relations with some of the UK’s partner countries in the EU, notably over his veto of a revision of the Lisbon Treaty in 2011, and his more recent pledge to hold a referendum on UK membership of the EU should the Conservatives win the next General Election. In order to be a positive participant in the European Union, therefore, the Government will need to ensure that its contributions to EU initiatives are not overshadowed by any statements it also makes to satisfy Eurosceptics at home.
Pledge: We will ensure that there is no further transfer of sovereignty or powers over the course of the next Parliament. We will examine the balance of the EU’s existing competences and will, in particular, work to limit the application of the Working Time Directive in the United Kingdom.
Status: In progress – The Government is undertaking a wide-raging review of the scope of the European Union’s competencies as they affect the UK. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Cabinet Office are expected to conclude the review by the end of 2014.
Pledge: We will amend the 1972 European Communities Act so that any proposed future treaty that transferred areas of power, or competences, would be subject to a referendum on that treaty – a ‘referendum lock’. We will amend the 1972 European Communities Act so that the use of any passerelle would require primary legislation.
Status: Done – The Government passed the European Union Act in 2011 placing restrictions on treaties and decisions relating to the EU. The Act specifically requires a referendum to be held on amendments to the Treaties, and major ratchet clauses (passerelle) that transfer competences or areas of power from the UK to the EU.
Pledge: We will examine the case for a United Kingdom Sovereignty Bill to make it clear that ultimate authority remains with Parliament.
Status: Not achieved – Although the EU Act 2011 affirms that the validity of EU law in the UK is through domestic statue, it has been criticised for failing to use the term ‘parliamentary sovereignty’ once. This hardly makes clear that ultimate authority remains with Parliament. The UK Parliamentary Sovereignty Bill, a private members bill put forward by Christopher Chope which did explicitly reference the doctrine, failed to pass its second reading in March 2011.
Pledge: We will ensure that Britain does not join or prepare to join the Euro in this Parliament,
Status: Done – David Cameron has repeatedly pledged not to join the European Single Currency. Most recently during his January 2013 speech which set out the offer of a referendum on the European Union if a Conservative Government is returned in 2015, he stated “as I have said, we will not join the single currency”.
Pledge: We will strongly defend the UK’s national interests in the forthcoming EU budget negotiations and agree that the EU budget should only focus on those areas where the EU can add value.
Status: In progress – Whilst Cameron achieved perhaps his biggest coup in negotiating a 4% real terms cut in EU budget payments, the first time in its 56 year history, there a number of challenges ahead which may test his negotiating skills and relations with his backbenchers. These include the financial regulations of the city and EU demands for future budgetary increases.
Pledge: We will press for the European Parliament to have only one seat, in Brussels.
Status: In progress – Whilst the UK Government has publically backed MEPs who campaign for an end to the EU Parliament’s obligatory plenary sessions in Strasbourg, EU member states continue to veto a single seat for the European Parliament despite the fact that it would achieve estimated savings of €180 million (£145 million) a year.
Pledge: We will approach forthcoming legislation in the area of criminal justice on a case-by-case basis, with a view to maximising our country’s security, protecting Britain’s civil liberties and preserving the integrity of our criminal justice system. Britain will not participate in the establishment of any European Public Prosecutor.
Status: In progress – In October 2012, the Home Secretary, Theresa May MP, announced that the UK was “minded” to pull out of most European crime and policing co-operation by 2014, as allowed under the Lisbon Treaty. The decision by the Home Secretary has opened up further divisions within the Coalition. Conservative MPs see the opt-out as the first step in repatriating powers to the UK, while the Liberal Democrats are pushing for the re-adoption of the European Arrest Warrant and renewed participation in EU-wide policing bodies.
Pledge: We support the further enlargement of the EU.
Status: Done - Enlargement of the European Union is one of the few areas on which the Coalition agrees upon. Croatia is set to become the 28th EU member state in mid-2013 while other Balkan countries have been told they can join the EU one day, if they meet the criteria.