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Ed Miliband attempts to worsen David Cameron’s EU headache — but also gives the PM a painkiller

By Peter Hoskin
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Sometimes it feels as through the Channel has narrowed, and Continental Europe has crept all the way to Westminster. This is one of those times. With David Cameron set to enter EU Budget negotiations, ahead of a speech on Britain’s relationship with Europe, and after UKIP’s prominent showing in the elections last week, Brussels looms large over our politics.

And now Ed Miliband has decided to have his say, too. The Labour leader is interviewed by Patrick Hennessy and Matthew d’Ancona in the Sunday Telegraph — and basically all he talks about is Europe.

Mr Miliband is obviously keen to make life difficult for his Conservative counterpart, but not necessarily by driving wedge between the latter and Tory backbenchers. The coalition he appears more eager to build is not between Labour and the Eurosceptic right, but between Labour and pro-EU businesses. “It's partly probably jockeying for a post-Cameron world,” he says of that recent story about Michael Gove wanting us out, “but I think the business community is genuinely very worried.”

But, that said, Mr Miliband does also indulge in a bit of Euro-scepticism. The article says that a speech he is set to deliver tomorrow will accept that “Euro-sceptics must not be dismissed as wild-eyed extremists, but must be listened to because some of their arguments are right.” He also talks about reforming the EU, including by having “maximum transitional controls” on immigration from the accession countries such as Poland.

If this sounds to you like the Labour leader having his cake and eating it too, then you’re probably right. But even that’s suggestive of how Labour are starting to accept the Euro-sceptic realities of British society. As Matthew d’Ancona puts it in his column about the interview:

“No Labour leader in recent decades could conceivably have speculated so openly about ‘people’s biggest beef’ with Europe: not even Miliband’s one-time mentor, Gordon Brown, at his most Euro-realist.”

Even a quick shuffle through this morning’s polls suggests that Mr Miliband is right to do this. Just to pick two findings from the deck: 56 per cent of people would vote for us to leave the EU, and 66 per cent think the UK’s contributions to the EU budget should be cut.

But the question is, will people buy Miliband’s line on Europe? After all, there is, at the moment, a striking omission: the promise of any referendum on the EU. As the interview puts it, “”Neither will he pledge a referendum on the issue, for now at least.”  

This seems rather a let-off for David Cameron. No doubt Mr Miliband has qualms about scaring pro-EU sorts away from his party, and might not feel that he has to reach out to the UKIP vote. But if he were to offer a referendum, it’s likely that the Prime Minister would have to follow suit or face the wrath of his backbenchers. And, what's more, history contains examples of pro-EU parties offering an in/out referendum on democratic grounds: the Lib Dems did just that a few years ago.