In or out? The European Union in the parties’ manifestos

By Dr. Marco Goldoni, Lecturer at the School of Law, University of Glasgow

As it was predictable, most of the electoral campaign and the parties’ manifestos have focussed on one EU-related topic: the in/out referendum. This is not to say that other topics were completely absent, but one would have expected a wider debate, for example, on the UK position vis-à-vis the Fiscal Treaty and the other institutional instruments set up in order to save the Euro and to bring fiscal convergence among Member States. Yet given all indications are that the forthcoming election will produce a second consecutive hung Parliament, with no party likely to emerge with a majority of seats in the House Commons, some post-election wrangling as to the composition of the next government can be expected. And whether the goal is to negotiate a substantive legislative agenda around which a coalition government might be formed, or a confidence and supply deal to sustain a minority administration in office, it is easy to imagine that negotiations between a number of parties might be animated by some of EU-related issues.

An overview of the parties’ manifestos confirms that the key topic is the ‘in-out’ referendum already promised last year by the Conservative Party. The latter has confirmed its commitment to it, while the Lib-dem states that UK membership of the EU cannot be put into question. They concede that an ‘in-out’ referendum might be held only if there was a massive transfer of sovereignty from the UK to the EU, an option which is already contemplated by the European Union Act 2011. UKIP maintains a strong anti-European position and links its willing to enter into a coalition to an expedited referendum. On the other side of the political spectrum, Labour rejects the idea of an ‘in-out’ referendum and pledges for a redefinition of the UK role in the European Union. Along the same line, the SNP confirms its pro-European position by rejecting the referendum option, but interestingly maintains that in case of a vote on EU membership this ought to take place according to nations. In this respect, a Labour/SNP coalition would face less problems than a Tory/Lib-dem (and things would be even more complicated with the support of UKIP). This means that a clear vote for a Labour/SNP coalition is equivalent to a rejection of the ‘in-out’ referendum.  Moreover, given these uncertainties, many essential aspects of the potential referendum are still underdetermined and will be defined possibly only after the formation of a coalition: e.g., how the question ought to be structured, whether it would follow failed negotiations with the European Union, how the electorate would be structured.

Yet, other European issues will surface in the future and will have to be addressed by the next government. If one turns to what is going to be another big issue in the short term, that is, the negotiation and ratification of TTIP (Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership), things look slightly different. All manifestos contain a short reference to the party’s position and in general all parties are quite supportive. There is one notable exception, based on its anti-European radical stance: UKIP. Yet, almost all parties are keen to introduce some limits to the scope of application of TTIP. The NHS is often mentioned in the manifestos as a non-negotiable exception to the application of the TTIP competition regime. So, in case of a coalition government, it might be possible to find an agreement between the Tories and the Lib-dem because they are both committed (with the latter even boosting its virtues for the British economy) but if UKIP proved to be an essential staple for the government then the path of TTIP negotiations might encounter serious hurdles. On the other side of the spectrum, while Labour and SNP are generally in favour, they both introduce some limits (again, mostly around the NHS).

As it will become evident in the aftermath of the elections, the Brexit question cannot be easily answered because there are contradictory interests at stake.