European Movement UK

Britain's future is with Europe! Join the debate and put your opinion forward!

by Petros Fassoulas, Vice-Chair of the European Movement UK

(This article first appeared in the Internationale Politik und Gesellschaft Journal)

The political stakes in electoral contests tent to be high. Europe has certainly seen its fair share of elections recently where the outcome would define the political landscape way beyond the confines of a Parliament’s lifespan.

The May 7 General Election in Britain is going to be one of those defining moments. Because it will not just decide which party (or parties) will be in government, it will also influence whether Britain remains a member of the European Union.

David Cameron, the Prime Minister and leader of the Conservative party, has declared that if he wins a majority he will renegotiate the terms of Britain’s EU membership and put the outcome to the British people.

Cameron made his pledge halfway through his term in office, in an effort to find a distraction from one of the harshest fiscal rebalancing acts in Western Europe, to throw red meat to the raucous Eurosceptic wing of his party and address the threat from the anti-EU, anti-immigration, populist and nationalist UK Independence Party. His reasons are as inward looking as his undertaking is risky. Britain relies heavily on its EU membership in terms of trade, job creation and influence at the world stage. An EU exit would have profound consequences for the economy and the country’s global standing in the medium and long term.

Whatever Mr Cameron’s reasons, his pledge forced the other two main parties to adopt a position on the referendum question. Both Labour, which features one of the most pro-European front benches in a while, and the traditionally pro-EU Liberal Democrats have now ruled out a referendum on EU membership, unless there is a significant transfer of power from the national to the European level (something similar to the Economic and Monetary Union).

Each party’s final position, of course, will depend on the outcome of the election. If, for example, the Conservatives do not secure a majority, the Liberal Democrat’s leadership has indicated they might be prepared to accommodate their referendum pledge as part of the negotiations to form a coalition. Such a move will certainly cause intense debate within the Liberal Democrats but it goes to show that the parties’ position on the referendum might not be as final and absolute as it appears.

In case Labour wins by a narrow majority or fails to secure a majority altogether and is forced to run a minority government, it will be hard to resist calls for a referendum from UKIP and the Conservatives (who are expected to dispense with Cameron if he does not win and replace him with a much more Eurosceptic party leader). Even if they form a “pro-European” coalition government with the support of the Liberal Democrats and (less likely) the Scottish National Party, the pressure from the right wing of the political spectrum will ensure that the referendum question will remain at the heart of the political debate throughout the term of the next Parliament.

Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, wants nothing less than to have half of his premiership consumed by an EU referendum, especially when he has promised the business community that he is the one that can do away with the uncertainty caused and build a more constructive relationship with Britain’s EU partners. But having to rely on a narrow majority or a fractious coalition, he might conclude that, in political terms, it is better to end the barrage of referendum demands from the opposition and the Eurosceptic press and give in.

Cameron’s pledge also forced other EU leaders to think seriously about the prospect of a British exit. But, whereas most member states are enthusiastically supportive of Britain’s continuing membership of the EU, very few are prepared to accommodate Mr Cameron’s demands and provide Britain with a special deal, one that will allow it to enjoy all the benefits but avoid adhering to its responsibilities. The justification for British exceptionalism felt by some in Westminster does not stretch further than the Channel. Cameron’s abrasive diplomatic style hasn’t helped. During his 5 years as PM he conducted himself in Brussels in a confrontational manner. Rather than building alliances and winning friends he has managed to alienate some of Britain’s natural allies after he abandoned the centre-right EPP, vetoed the Fiscal Compact, which was set up to deal with the eurozone’s existential sovereign debt crisis, threatened to block the EU budget and put into question the right of free movement in the EU, something of totemic importance for the EU as a whole. As a result Britain will struggle to find member states prepared to support the Treaty revision necessary to provide it with the special deal it requests.

Last but not least, Cameron’s referendum pledge got the debate going, forcing many pro-Europeans to speak up in favour of EU membership. Members of the business community, as well as politicians, trade unions and NGOs have finally come out of their lethargy and actively advocated the merits of remaining part of the project of European integration. Consequently we have witnessed a reversal of polling. A recent YouGov poll found that 46% of Britons are in favour of staying in the EU, as opposed to 36% who are in favour of leaving. An IpsosMori poll late last year put the margin to as much as 56% vs. 36%. All that while UKIP’s popularity is starting to wane after a series of scandals engulfing its parliamentary candidates and MEPs, with pre-election polls showing the party hovering around 12 percentage points, significantly less than the 27% that secured them victory at the 2014 European Parliament elections.

All this is taking place as the EU itself is crafting a course in a direction very close to Britain’s heart. Both the July 2014 European Council Conclusions, which set the EU’s strategy for the foreseeable future, and the European Commission’s objectives for 2014-2019 resemble remarkably an agenda driven by Britain. With emphasis on competitiveness, deregulation, trade and expanding the Single Market one would be forgiven for thinking that the EU’s new mission statement could have been written in Downing Street. It is ironic that the EU seems to be converting to Britain’s mantra at the very moment that Britain is heading for the exit door.

The world in Westminster beyond May the 7th is a very uncertain one. Venturing a prediction as to what the election result will be is unwise. But whatever happens, the outcome will determine much more than who will occupy the House of Commons benches for the next 5 years. This election could change everything.

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