Manifesto Check: the Conservatives take a combative approach to the EU

Cameron puts on his best stern face. Chris Radburn/PA Wire

When it comes to Europe, gone are the euphemistic references to “balance of competences” and “renegotiating” European policy. Instead, the Conservative manifesto has returned to the two R’s of the pre-coalition era: referendum, and return of powers. The manifesto reflects the careful line trodden since 2010 by the Conservative leadership, between concessions to the eurosceptic wing of the party, and recognition of the concerns of different sections of business.

Returning powers to the UK

The Conservatives want control over two home office policy areas returned to a national level: immigration and human rights. The Tories criticise the Labour Party’s earlier agreement to lift controls on free movement. Yet the manifesto does not explain how controls on immigration can now be secured, which would be a difficult process for any future government.

Instead, the Conservatives pledge new rules to curb immigrants’ rights to claim benefits. These proposals include in-work, top-up benefits, and are not a million miles away from Labour’s manifesto commitment to link benefit entitlements to contributions. In fact, research has found that migrants from EU countries contribute far more in taxes than they receive in benefits. So although such measures are politically symbolic, their financial impact is likely to be limited.

The Conservative manifesto also promises to scrap the European Convention on Human Rights, which the party has long opposed on the basis that it restricts national law-making; as seen, for example, in the row over prisoners’ voting rights.

On other EU matters, such as the European arrest warrant (which the coalition government signed up for), the manifesto stays silent. This indicates an acceptance of the current situation, which could be politically controversial on the right of the party.

Fighting integration

The manifesto presents an anti-regulatory approach to the single market, which is standard fare from the Conservatives. The party repeatedly refers to the UK’s outsider status, pledging to keep Britain out of the euro. The Conservatives promise to resist any attempts to erode the right of those outside the eurozone to protect their own monetary policy, and to fight against further integration.

In particular, the manifesto highlights the difficulty of preventing further eurozone integration, or altering the course of economic policy within the eurozone. It is true that further macroeconomic integration, or related regulatory activity, could affect countries which – like the UK – retain their own currency, but are still part of the single market.

This type of regulation has already posed problems for the British government. For example, curbs on bankers’ bonuses were introduced under regulation of financial markets, which is governed by single market rules, and therefore applies to all member states. The outgoing government tried to stop them, but were unable to.

Even more controversial is the financial transaction tax, which “was and is a top UK government priority to head off,” according to letters from a former Tory home office minister. A British attempt to challenge the measure failed in April 2014, but given the political divisions over it, there is still political room to limit its impact.

These examples raise the wider question of whether Britain wants to – or has the political capacity to – negotiate a more formal mechanism for having greater input into eurozone decision-making, or checking the regulatory impact of eurozone decisions on British policies and institutions. Britain has already won some formal safeguards on banking initiatives, but the relationship between the eurozone and the single market will remain an ongoing policy challenge for British governments.

The manifesto is short on detail here, but maintains a maximalist position of British “veto”, including the claim that David Cameron is the only prime minister ever to have vetoed an EU treaty. This refers to Cameron’s move to block the extension of the Lisbon Treaty. This was not technically a veto, but rather a refusal to allow the council to open a procedure to revise the terms of the treaty. As it happened, the proposals were subsequently agreed upon by eurozone members outside the treaty.

Certainly, Britain’s outright refusal to entertain the idea of any major treaty revision has contributed to a more general feeling among EU leaders that the time is not right for wholesale treaty reform. In light of these observations, the language of veto appears calculated to appeal to the party faithful, rather than constituting a longer-term strategy.

Overall, in policy terms, there is not much in the manifesto to surprise. The categorical rejection of participation in bailouts, and in European defence and security integration does not set new “red lines”, but rather maintains the established position of the party’s leadership.

In or out?

The Conservative party’s main claim to a distinctive (albeit widely trailed) policy proposal is its pledge to call a referendum on membership by 2017, and to act on the outcome of that consultation. Although UKIP also campaigns on an in-out referendum, the Conservatives claim to be the only party able to deliver it. Of course, in setting out its own position on a referendum (yes, but on the assumption that it will yield an “out” vote), UKIP has opened the way to a possible tactical alliance with the Conservatives, but whether UKIP’s share of seats gives it power after May depends crucially on the wider Commons configuration.

This of course is the single proposal which, if the party is successful in May, will have potentially far-reaching consequences for the UK and the British economy. Quite how a referendum would be managed, and how an incoming Conservative government would allay the concerns recently expressed by some business leaders about the economic impact of negative or uncertain relationships with EU partners, are not addressed in the manifesto.

David Cameron has said that he would campaign for continued British membership in an in-out referendum, although this could pose problems for management of his party. Key factors likely to encourage support of British membership of the EU in a 2017 referendum (as well as a preference for the status quo) would be Britain’s economic performance, but it will also depend on the way the campaign is handled.

So far, Conservative depiction of the EU as interfering and all-powerful has made British citizens more distrustful and less confident about the likelihood of being able to achieve satisfactory reform.

The Conversation’s Manifesto Check deploys academic expertise to scrutinise the parties’ plans.