The second in a series of three party leader debates, last week, featured the thorny issue of the role of the UK in the European Union – or as the broadcaster, Sky News put it EU interference in the UK.
It presented front-runner, the Conservative leader, David Cameron with an opportunity to claw back some ground lost to Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader who dramatically stole Mr Cameron’s thunder in the first leaders’ debate. The Liberal Democrats are considered to be soft on the European Union and David Cameron’s more sceptical position was thought to hold more appeal to wavering voters. However, to the dismay of Conservative supporters, Mr Cameron decidedly failed to land a killer-blow on the Liberal Democrat leader.
This can only be explained by Mr Cameron’s determination to keep the question of the EU on the margins of his election campaign. In 2001, the Conservatives under the leadership of William Hague put their EU policies – particularly on the Euro – at the centre of their campaign and failed to gain any ground on Labour as a result. Mr Cameron has learnt the lesson from this doomed campaign and has so far avoided the issue of the EU as much as possible for fear of exposing the divisions in his party concerning Europe.
Rather than going in for the kill, Mr Cameron spent his time during the debate on Europe defending the Conservative Party’s position from Nick Clegg’s accusations that the Conservatives would put the UK on the sidelines. Gordon Brown gave the goldilocks pitch of dismissing both his opponents approach on Europe – the Liberal Democrats for being to hot on Brussels, the Conservatives for being to cold. Labour, he said, has it just about right.
Mr Cameron told viewers that he wanted to repatriate certain powers from the EU, although he didn’t elaborate on how or where he would try to negotiate opt-outs. The Conservative party manifesto suggests that criminal justice is one such area where they would try to claw back more national sovereignty. The Liberal Democrat manifesto, by contrast, favours more EU co-operation on criminal justice and homeland security.
The Conservative leader repeated his promise that he would hold a referendum if there was ever another change to the institutional relationship between the UK and the EU. However, this failed to differentiate him from the canny Mr Clegg who also offers the same deal. Nick Clegg even rattled Mr Cameron when he reminded the audience that he dropped his “cast-iron” guarantee for a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty once the treaty was finally ratified.
David Cameron was clear about the Conservative’s policy to refuse entry to the single currency. But again, he could not score points against his Liberal Democrat opponents who had modified their position in support of the single currency by adding Gordon Brown’s caveats that the country should join “only when the economic conditions were right” and even then only after a positive referendum result.
Mr Clegg ‘s strategy was clearly to marginalise Mr Cameron on his decision to leave the Centre-Right EPP Group in the European Parliament and form a group with – as he calls them - a “bunch of nutters”. This allowed Gordon Brown to dismiss Cameron’s Conservatives simply as anti-European.
Perhaps it was a mistake for Mr Clegg to remind the audience of his understanding of the European Union from his days as a “Eurocrat” adviser to the former Trade Commissioner, Sir Leon Brittan, but Mr Clegg was savvy enough to know that he shouldn’t try to sound as Euro-sceptical as the Conservatives might have done just to appeal to the gallery. Instead, he articulated the case for stronger EU co-operation to help bring about stronger financial service regulation and action on climate change.
Mr Brown took a low-key approach but nevertheless repeated the Blairite offer of putting the UK at the heart of Europe and not on the sidelines. He stuck to a pragmatic defence of the EU, repeatedly claiming that three million jobs depended on UK membership.
Both Mr Clegg and Mr Brown performed as they had been expected to by those familiar with their EU policies. The only surprise of the Europe debate was that Mr Cameron took trouble to tone down his more euro-sceptic views – which for many, should have been his strongest card of the evening, certainly in trying to find some clear blue water between himself and his main threat Mr Clegg. His most effective intervention on the issue of Europe came during a discussion on immigration where he promised a cap on the number of people from newly-joined EU countries settling in the UK.
The three main parties’ manifesto commitments on the EU vary only in so far as tone. With the Lisbon Treaty out of the way, and the single currency only a distant prospect, the manifestos could comfortably avoid making any substantive policy decisions one way or the other.
The Conservative’s policy pledges emphasise the role of the US and NATO “as the ultimate guarantee on Europe’s Security.” Labour, however sees the UK playing a strong role in European defence, in “partnership with NATO.” The Labour Party manifesto points at “the poverty of the Tory vision […] summed by their false choice between alliance with the United States and one with Europe.”
It suits Labour of course to paint the Conservatives as being on the fringes of mainstream decision-making in Europe. It describes David Cameron’s decision to take his MEPs out of the Centre-Right Group, the EPP (the largest Group in the Parliament) as “anti-European” and would only undermine Britain’s influence in the EU. However, Gordon Brown left it to Nick Clegg in the TV debate to turn on David Cameron for allying the Conservatives with niche political parties in the European Union.
The manifesto commitments on Europe were successful in keeping the issue low on the electoral agenda and the Leader’s debate also succeeded in creating a full-blown clash on the UK’s position in Europe. The only surprise from both the manifestos and the debates on Europe is that David Cameron restrained himself from a full-blooded eurosceptic attack on his new nemesis, the Euro-friendly Nick Clegg. He did, however, allow himself to repeat more than once the slogan from the 2001 election campaign, “In Europe but not run by Europe”.