Friday

23rd Aug 2019

New UK government tones down Tories' EU policy

  • Mr Clegg (l) walks into Number 10 Downing Street for the first time as deputy PM (Photo: number10.gov.uk)

The newly-minted Conservative-Liberal Democrat government coalition in London has forged an agreement on its future EU policy, moderating some of the harsher anti-EU Conservative initiatives as part of the compromise.

The deal, published on Wednesday afternoon (12 May), says the government "will be a positive participant in the European Union, playing a strong and positive role with our partners."

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It maintains the Conservatives' pre-election pledge that Britain will not join the single currency, although the language has been softened and no longer includes the word "never."

"We agree that Britain will not join or prepare to join the euro in this Parliament," it says.

It also keeps the promise to have a referendum on future EU treaties which "transferred areas of power, or competences."

But the strongest modification concerns previous Conservative promises to repatriate EU laws in social, employment and criminal justice areas.

The new-look Europe policy now only refers to the intention to "examine the balance of the EU's existing competences." It also says it will "work to limit the application of the Working Time Directive" - an EU law, and a bugbear of the Conservatives, which limits EU citizens' working hours to 48 per week.

In a move likely to be welcomed by many members of the European Parliament, wherever they hail from politically or geographically, unless, perhaps, they come from France, London is also promising "to press for the European Parliament only to have one seat, in Brussels."

MEPs look on with interest

Although they are not ideal political bedfellows on several issues, the EU is perhaps the subject where Tories and the Lib Dems diverge the most. Their respective MEPs in Brussels have been watching the UK developments with interest.

Deputies from both parties gave a cautious welcome to the agreement.

"Implicit in the agreement is that the Tories accept the [Lisbon] treaty," Liberal MEP Andrew Duff. "They won't be able to carry out their electoral programme - they were going to pull out of the charter, they were going to withdraw from social and employment law of the European Union and block progress in the criminal justice area."

Mr Duff regretted the referendum pledge has been maintained, noting that plans for stronger economic governance and a European monetary fund will ultimately require a treaty change.

Conservative MEP Timothy Kirkhope played down the fact that some of the language had been softened noting that the "referendum lock" is still in place.

"I don't think I have a problem with this," he said, referring to possible closer ties between Tories and their Liberal Democrat colleagues in Brussels. "We have always said we want to forge ties across the centre-right and centre-left."

Polar opposites

When it comes to Europe, Tory and Lib Dem MEPs agree on the importance of the single market and free trade, but little else. The deputies have polar opposite views on EU defence, security, foreign affairs and constitutional issues.

The differences are symbolically illustrated by their position in the European Parliament. The 11 British Liberal Democrat MEPs sit with the third-biggest and very pro-EU Liberal faction.

Their 25 Tory counterparts, having taken leave of the pro-federalist European People's Party last year, sit with the fifth biggest group in the EU assembly, the European Conservatives and Reformists, comprising a mixed bag of fringe parties predominantly from eastern Europe. It defines itself as "anti-federalist."

Mr Kirkhope said he did not think the new government would mean that the Conservatives would rejoin their old family, the centre-right EPP group.

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