UK parties’ positions
The UK’s membership of the European Union has long been a contentious issue. In 1961, the UK first applied to join the EU, then called the European Economic Community (EEC), but its membership bid was rejected by the French President. At that time, the UK was already involved in the European Free Trade Area. The UK finally joined the EEC in 1973, as did Denmark and Ireland. In 1975, the UK held a referendum on its membership. The public voted in favour of the UK’s membership but the debate has continued. In 2013 David Cameron announced that the UK would hold a second referendum on membership by the end of 2017.
UK political parties represented in the European Parliament
The UK Independence Party (24 MEPs) is the largest UK party in the European Parliament, but only has one elected MP in Westminster. It is the only party campaigning to leave the EU. It advocates complete withdrawal from the EU because of its excessive cost to the UK, its lack of democracy, and immigration problems. UKIP instead wants to have free-trade agreements with EU countries without being part of a political union.
The Labour Party (20 MEPs) is currently the second largest party in both the UK and EU parliaments. The majority of Labour MPs support the EU membership, with Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn saying the party is ‘committed to keeping Britain in the EU because we believe it is the best framework for European trade and cooperation’. Many Labour MPs want to be part of a reformed EU and believe the best way to do that is from within. Some Labour MPs are campaigning to leave the EU. There is both a Labour In and a Labour Leave campaign.
Labour has historically been wary of the EU and held the first referendum on EU membership in 1975. The Labour government at the time supported membership but a large faction of the Labour Party campaigned to leave. Labour’s attitude has changed as the EU has become a means of achieving social change. Labour oversaw many developments in the EU when it held power in the UK from 1997-2010. They signed up to the EU’s Social Chapter in 1997, reversing Conservative Prime Minister John Major’s earlier decision to stay out of EU social policy altogether. In 2001 it supported adopting the euro currency if the UK economy passed five tests of economic strength and if it was supported at a referendum. Labour, in the end, decided the UK would not join. In 2005, Tony Blair gave up some of the UK’s EU budget rebate in exchange for fundamental reform of the Common Agricultural Policy, but reform was more limited than expected. In 2007 Gordon Brown signed the Lisbon Treaty despite the Labour Party’s earlier promise that the Treaty’s predecessor, the EU Constitution, would be put to a referendum.
The Conservative Party (19 MEPs) is the party of the government in the UK, and the third largest UK party in the European parliament. The party is split on the issue of the EU. David Cameron, the Prime Minister and leader of the Conservative Party, is campaigning to stay in a reformed EU. Conservative MPs and government ministers will be free to campaign as they want after negotiations between the UK government and the EU are concluded. There has been speculation that as many as two-thirds of Conservative MPs support leaving the EU.
The Conservatives are against further EU integration but traditionally have not advocated withdrawal from the EU. The party opposed the Lisbon Treaty (2007) and campaigned for a referendum on it. The Conservative Party also opposes the UK adopting the euro and has called for radical reform of the CAP and for the restoration of national control over social and employment legislation. In 2010 the party initiated the European Union Act, which passed into law in 2011. The Act provides for a referendum in the event of any future EU treaty change or new treaty which would see sovereignty given from the UK to the EU. In 2013 David Cameron announced that, if elected in 2015, a Conservative government would hold an in/out referendum by 2017 on the UK’s EU membership.
The Green Party (3 MEPs) despite being critical of the EU, is supportive of the UK’s membership. They criticise many aspects of the way the EU is run, believing democracy in the EU should be strengthened and that government should be as close to the people as possible. The party also fears that the EU is not adequately concerned about ecological priorities. The party opposed the EU Constitution and the Lisbon Treaty. They are also opposed to the UK adopting euro.
The Scottish National Party (2 MEPs) is the third largest party in the UK parliament and the governing party in the Scottish Parliament. The SNP strongly supports membership of the EU, with the party leader and Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon previously saying that the UK leaving the EU would be grounds for another referendum on Scottish independence. The party aims to protect Scottish interests in the UK and initiated the referendum on Scottish independence in 2014, campaigning for Scotland to leave the UK. The party believes that the UK should stay in the EU and believe in an independent Scotland in the EU. SNP MPs have been critical of both David Cameron’s negotiations and of his preference for 23 June 2016 as the referendum date, as they fear campaigns would overlap with Scottish elections.
The Liberal Democrats (1 MEP) have traditionally been the most pro-EU UK party, and advocate staying in the EU. In 2008, Liberal Democrats Leader, Nick Clegg, called for a referendum on the UK’s EU membership to allow them to make a case in favour of the EU and to ‘defeat the eurosceptics for a generation’. The Liberal Democrats supported the Lisbon Treaty, but the party is keen to avoid further institutional changes. Lib Dems argue that the EU is useful for dealing with international issues, such as the environment and cross-border crime, but that the EU should not act in areas where national or local action would be more effective. They have been broadly supportive of Cameron’s referendum and reform approach.
The Democratic Unionist Party (1 MEP) is the largest party in Northern Ireland’s devolved assembly. They are highly critical of the EU and supported a referendum on EU membership. It opposes the UK adopting the euro currency, campaigned for a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty and wants fishing policy to be controlled at a local level. The party has not officially said whether they will campaign to leave, but most of the party MPs are backing a UK exit. They also oppose a referendum in June, as it will be too close to Northern Irish elections.
Sinn Fein (1 MEP) is a Northern Irish party. It adopts a critical but constructive approach to the EU and wants the EU to be a partnership of equal sovereign states. The party opposed the Lisbon Treaty, arguing that it would ‘damage Irish interests’. They have made clear that they will campaign for the UK to remain a member of the EU.
Plaid Cymru (1 MEP) is a Welsh political party which believes EU membership has been good for Wales, but that reform is still needed. They want decisions to be made as close to the people as possible. They will campaign for the UK to remain in the EU. They also oppose the June referendum date as it clashes with Welsh elections.
The Ulster Unionists (1 MEP) are a Northern Irish Party, they have been highly critical of the EU but are waiting on the final outcome of the negotiations before deciding whether to campaign for staying in or leaving the EU.
In Northern Ireland the Social Democratic and Labour Party and the Alliance Party, which have no MEPs, will be supporting the UK’s membership of the EU.