It is hard to be confident that the leaders of the three main parties are shaping policy towards the European Union in the national interest. David Cameron, having resisted a referendum on our membership of the EU on the grounds that it would cause uncertainty, created precisely that uncertainty 15 months ago when he promised precisely that referendum. He looks like a temporising leader in the mould of Harold Wilson, seeking – sometimes quite nimbly – to keep a divided party together. Fearful of his assertively Eurosceptic backbenchers and by the advancing purple tide of Ukip outside the House of Commons, he now promises a referendum by 2017, on what we know not, but whatever it might be, he intends to campaign for a Yes vote to keep us in the EU.
Then, last month, Nick Clegg challenged Nigel Farage to debate the European question face to face. After a day’s hesitation, the leader of the third most popular party agreed to a debate with the leader of the fourth most popular party, and those democratic expositions will take place on the radio on 26 March and on television on 2 April. Political debates that attract large audiences are plainly a good thing, even if the leaders of the first and second parties refuse to take part in them, and there is something in Mr Clegg’s argument that to have the “party of in” take on the “party of out” might achieve clarity.
Even so, Mr Clegg is the leader of a party that has lost more than half of its support by going into coalition and who has little to lose. He seems desperate to differentiate his party from his coalition partners, and to win over the minority of the electorate who are passionately pro-EU.
Finally, on Wednesday, Ed Miliband joined the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister in adopting a policy on Europe determined by party-political advantage. Where Mr Cameron is spooked by sceptics, and Mr Clegg fears electoral eclipse, Mr Miliband’s concern is that Labour will once again fight a general election without any significant business support. His plan to freeze energy prices alarmed investors and prompted wider worries about whether the Labour leader understands wealth creation.
But Mr Miliband saw an opportunity to win back some ground by opposing an EU referendum in the next parliament. He sought, not quite successfully, to balance this message with support for the principle of a referendum if other EU members seek to transfer further powers to Brussels – which he admitted was “unlikely”. He seems to have calculated that business support is more important than “letting people have their say”, and was rewarded with the blessing of the CBI.
Mr Miliband has, at least, ended up in roughly the right place. The Prime Minister’s promise of a vote is a foolish one. Although the European treaties will have to be rewritten one day, the end of 2017 is an artificial deadline and the prospect of all 27 other members of the Union agreeing to anything that would remotely satisfy the majority of Mr Cameron’s party is nil. Fortunately, the three leaders of the main parties in the House of Commons are committed in their different ways to our membership of the EU. But is this really the way to run European policy – with all three possible leaders of the next government frightened of their own shadows?