If Labour wanted evidence of how difficult they will find it to outflank the Tories on Europe, it was there for them today during prime minister’s questions. This afternoon’s debate, during which Tory rebels will vote to push the government into backing a cut in the EU budget, seemed to offer the Labour leader a golden opportunity to embarrass Cameron in front of his own backbenches.
But the ploy failed. As Miliband attacked on why the PM didn’t back a cut in the budget, Cameron hit back, criticising the Labour leader of opportunism:
The whole country will see through what is rank opportunism… Labour gave away half our rebate in one negotiation. Today, they haven’t even put down their own resolution on this issue.
I wrote a few weeks ago that the number one priority of those at the heart of the coalition, and especially those close to Nick Clegg, was not to have a referendum on Europe. But there are people on his side who think the Lib Dem leader should effectively call the Eurosceptics’ bluff and back a referendum, not just on any new European treaty, but on the UK’s very membership of the union. It is an argument even Clegg used to advance.
Philip Stephens, the FT’s chief political commentator, made this call a few weeks ago in a provocative column (at least for a europhile) entitled Britain’s eurosceptics are right to call for a referendum. In it he argued:
Barring a euro break-up, Britain and its partners are now set on different courses. At some point the divergence will become unsustainable. The Tory sceptics may be right after all. There is a case for an in-or-out referendum. My guess is the sceptics would be sorely disappointed by the outcome. The voters are realists. Much as Brussels may irritate them, they know there is nothing splendid about isolation.
Now YouGov have done some polling that seems to back up Stephens’ conclusions, especially about the outcome of such a referendum. Read more
Ed Miliband started well at today’s PMQs, using David Cameron’s words from his 2011 New Year message to highlight the government’s failure to stop the rise in unemployment, which has hit a new 17-year high.
Miliband quotes the PM as saying: “What is uppermost in my mind is jobs,” before asking, “What went wrong?”
There then followed such a well-worn debate (“Unemployment is rising,” says Labour; “Here’s what we’re doing to tackle it,” say the Tories) that half the press gallery fell asleep during it. Read more
Nick Clegg with Herman Van Rompuy
Nick Clegg’s advisers like to call him the “Heineken” of British politics, because he reaches the parts of Europe that other British politicians can’t reach. Clegg, who trained at the College of Europe, learned at the feet of Leon Brittan, the famously pro-European Tory, became an MEP and speaks to leaders across Europe in their own languages, is ideally placed to try and win back some goodwill for the UK among European leaders.
And that is what he will try and do over the next few weeks and months. He told cabinet this morning that he now wants to focus on how to re-engage with Europe after David Cameron’s treaty veto, which has clearly angered many on the continent. Vince Cable specifically raised the issue of business fears about being cut adrift.
Tomorrow, the Lib Dem leader will host a series of meetings with business leaders to try to soothe any worries they have on the UK becoming isolated from the rest of Europe, and to ask their views on Europe more generally. He will also attend a business breakfast arranged by Business for New Europe, a pro-EU group of corporate representatives. Read more
One of the key achievements of Britain’s veto in Brussels on Thursday night was supposed to have been that not allowing the full 27 members of the EU to sign a treaty would have stopped the 26 countries willing to go ahead using the EU’s institutions to do so.
The main effect of that would be to stop the European Commission scrutinising other countries’ budgets, and the Euroopean Court of Justice implementing the Commission’s decisions. This would make it much harder for Brussels to interfere in the fiscal plans of member states. Read more
Douglas Alexander has written a piece for the New Statesman trying to prise open the cracks in the coalition over Europe.
In the run up to this afternoon’s debate on the EU, during which Ed Miliband is expected to paint Cameron as isolated both at home and abroad, the shadow foreign secretary has invited the Lib Dems to work with Labour to get the UK back into the heart of Europe.
The roots of what happened on the night of Thursday 8 December lie deep in Cameron’s failure to modernise the Tory party. Just because he puts party interest before the national interest, there is no reason others should do the same. That is why I make a genuine offer to Liberal Democrats to work with us to try to get a better outcome for Britain, between now and when this agreement is likely to be finally tied down in March. Work can and should start immediately both to win back friends and allies and to consider what rules and procedures can avoid Britain’s further marginalisation.
Nicolas Sarkozy avoids shaking David Cameron's hand
So Britain has isolated itself in Europe by refusing to sign up to a deal to save the eurozone because other countries refused to give the UK specific safeguards to protect the single market and the City of London. Tory backbenchers are delighted, but what does the pro-European Lib Dem half of the coalition make of it?
Anyone expecting a massive bust up at the heart of the coalition will have been dismayed to read Nick Clegg’s statement this morning. The deputy prime minister said:
The demands Britain made for safeguards, on which the Coalition Government was united, were modest and reasonable. They were safeguards for the single market, not just the UK.
What we sought to ensure was to maintain a level playing field in financial services and the single market as a whole. This would have retained the UK’s ability to take tougher, not looser, regulatory action to sort out our banking system.
Reading accounts of the deal agreed between Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel last night to impose new rules on EU countries to guarantee fiscal discipline, you might think the two countries were uniting to save the Eurozone from its more profligate members.
But which two countries first broke the rule that deficits should not go above 3 per cent of GDP? It was France and Germany, back in 2003. What’s more, the two then united to make sure that they wouldn’t face sanctions for doing so – effectively destroying the rules (known as the “growth and stability pact”) altogether.
What’s more, they were supported in this action by the UK (otherwise known as the country that like to lecture others on fiscal discipline). Gordon Brown was chancellor at the time. Read more
A British protester burns an EU flag
Two sources who would know have told members of our political team that the chances of having a referendum on EU membership this parliament are very low indeed.
One ruled it out altogether, the other said the “number one priority” of coalition policy on Europe was not to have one.
David Cameron pretty much guaranteed that today when he said there would only be a referendum “if a new treaty passes powers from UK to Brussels” adding:
As Prime Minister, I do not think the issue will arise.
Ed Miliband’s interventions on Europe have a habit of serving only to bring David Cameron closer to his own backbenchers on the issue. On Monday, as Tory rebels lined up in their dozens to defy Cameron on an EU referendum, Miliband was the only one who managed to restore harmony on the Tory benches, uniting them in laughter when he said:
Apparently president Sarkozy – until recently his new best friend – had had enough of the posturing, lecturing and know-it-all ways. Let me say, Mr President, you spoke not just for France but for Britain as well.
At PMQs on Wednesday, a similar thing happened. Miliband had some good lines, including telling saying Cameron “was pleading with his backbenchers instead of leading for Britain in Europe”.