A European thread to a hung parliament

Monday, 10. May 2010     0 comment(s)

The political class and its symbiotic media pack in London has this past weekend been obsessed with the coalition talks between the Conservative Party and Liberal Democrats. The novelty in the UK of what is a perfectly normal procedure elsewhere across Europe has ensured obsessive coverage from the 24 hour news channels and heavyweight Sunday papers with their numerous supplements of ‘analysis’ meaning more pages to fill. In brief; the Conservatives took the largest number of seats in Parliament and the biggest chunk of the popular vote, but did not gain enough MPs to command a parliamentary majority. If they were to gain the support of the 57 Lib Dems MPs they would have that majority. Hence Nick Clegg, Lib Dems leader, is now the kingmaker despite the party’s actual election results being disappointing after so much pre-elections excitement of a breakthrough.

The Observer newspaper, the Guardian’s Sunday sister, led with a story based on leaked draft letter produced by civil servants for William Hague, who was expected to take up the position of Foreign Secretary had the Tories won a majority. The letter set out the Conservatives’ position on the EU, and it was prepared for Hague to deliver to his EU counterparts at Council of Ministers meeting today. Of course, as no government has yet been formed, Hague did not go to Brussels. The Observer describe the letter as demonstrating the Tories’ hard-line stance on the EU and suggest that their Euroscepticism will be a major stumbling block for a coalition with the pro-EU Lib Dems. The letter is interesting but much less of a scoop than the Observer claims. Firstly, it was a draft written for Hague to approve, which of course he had not as his party had not formed a government yet. Secondly, there is nothing surprising in the letter to those who have followed Conservative discussions on the EU. It seems to be based on the public statements that the Conservatives have been making on Europe for the last couple of years – including a promise of a ‘referendum lock’ on any future treaty changes to the EU, the ‘return of powers’ on criminal justice and employment law and social policy.

Nevertheless the Observer’s argument that EU policy is one of the areas where the Conservatives and Lib Dems will have significant difficulties in finding common ground is correct. Already party members in both parties have expressed unease at their respective leaders’ willingness to do a deal with the other. Others, such as former Conservative Defence and later Scottish Secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind have publicly said that due to differences on issues like the EU and Britain’s nuclear weapons they cannot see how a coalition could work. Ultimately if a coalition can be formed it will come down to how much the Liberal Democrats are willing to concede on other areas, such as Europe, in order to get their primary desire of electoral reform to proportional representation, and whether the Conservatives could really accept that reform in order to get their other policies through Parliament.

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