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View From London: Raising the Stakes on the UK's Europe Debate     Print Email

A political party founded just twenty years ago, which has no seat in the parliament at Westminster, is a major catalyst in Prime Minister David geoffpaulphotoCameron's pledge to give Britons a choice by referendum on whether to stay in or pull out of the European Union.   The referendum, if it takes place at all, will not be until after the next General Election in 2015 and probably not until 2017.  The prospect is for several unsettling years of speculation, economic and political uncertainty, while Britain's future EU role remains unresolved. Cameron's authority in his Conservative party and the country has already been weakened by his failure to carry the House of Commons with him in a commitment to militarily engage with Syria. A delayed referendum with growing dissension in his party over the timing of a referendum would harm him further still.

The growing impact of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), founded in 1993 on an anti-EU platform, pushed Cameron, a committed pro-European, into announcing the intended referendum on Britain's continued participation in the EU so far in advance. His precipitate action, in the view of some pro-Europeans, could jeopardise British businesses enjoying valuable commercial relationships with Europe while scaring away American and Asian companies which have found Britain a stable assembly-point and launch-pad for their forays into the continent. This bridge-making role has been massively to Britain's advantage. [A report widely circulated in London and not denied said that the Japanese Government had warned that tens of thousands of British jobs at Japanese companies in the UK could be at risk if the country pulled out of the European Union, Britain is already contending with a near-8 per cent unemployment rate.]
 
UKIP , a right-wing, self-proclaimed “libertarian party” with an estimated membership of 30,000, was founded on opposition to the EU as arbiter of British law in many areas of national life. UKIP has campaigned relentlessly and with measurable success for its political fortunes against the free movement of EU nationals into Britain, now home to more than 2.5 million non-British EU citizens, a growing number of them from Eastern European nations with struggling economies and all, as EU citizens, entitled to the same benefits as Britons in terms of jobs, housing, education and medical services.
 
While UKIP has no elected Members of the House of Commons, it holds 11 of the 73 UK seats in the European Parliament, a reflection of lack of mainstream UK voter interest in this assembly, which is elected by proportional representation and not the first past the post system of Westminster. In the last European parliamentary election in 2009, only 34.7 per cent of eligible UK voters cast a ballot, way below the average across Europe of 43 per cent and the 65.1 per cent turn out in the UK general election of 2010.
 
UKIP is hoping to markedly increase its representation in next year's European elections by stimulating British disillusionment with the European Union. On the back of their hopes for success in the European poll, they see their chances much improved of winning seats in the parliament at Westminster. It is this which deeply troubles many Tory MPs who hold their seats only by very slim margins and have seen UKIP significantly increase its representation at local council elections earlier this year, often at Tory expense.
 
An opinion poll published earlier this month by Lord Ashcroft, a former deputy chairman of the Conservative Party and a primary funder, found that among 30,000 voters in 40 constituencies held with small Conservative majorities, UKIP support had more than tripled the 3 per cent it won in the 2010 general election. If the UKIP surge continued, it could threaten the Tory majority in marginal constituencies. This, according to Lord Ashcroft, could put the Labour Party leader Ed Miliband (himself a committed pro-European) into 10 Downing Street with a “comfortable majority.”
 
Cameron has been under mounting pressure from a growing number of Eurosceptics among his “backbenchers,” a term applied to MPs who hold no government office and speak for no official department, who are pressing for Britain to break with the EU altogether, on the grounds that the country would do better in the world unfettered by the EU's regulations and directives. These MPs probably account for a third of the more than 300 Conservatives in the current House of Commons and provided the bulk of Cameron's own party members who voted against him on the Syrian issue.
 
A poll in May by YouGov, an international, internet-based opinion polling organisation, found that 35 per cent of  the 1915 UK adults surveyed would vote today to remain within the EU and 43 per cent to get out. There were 17 per cent “don't knows” and 6 per cent who would not vote. Asked in the same poll whether they were optimistic or pessimistic about the future of the EU, 60 per cent were pessimistic, 29 per cent optimistic and 11 per cent did not know.
 
Cameron's response to critics of the EU inside and outside of his party is to admit that public disillusionment with the EU is at “an all time high” but, to argue that Britain did not want to turn its back on the world, to look to far-reaching reforms which would enable Britain to stay inside the EU. He has not spelled out what those reforms might be but has embarked on a two year review of what are called “EU competences” (the power to act in particular areas conferred on it by EU treaties). Government departments, in consultations with parliament and its committees, business and “civil society,” are engaged in an in-depth audit of what the EU does so that there is “a clear sense of how Britain's national interests interact with the EU's roles”.
 
Armed with this information - on which he is also seeking other EU input – Cameron hopes to storm the heights of the European leadership with plans for a total overhaul of EU policies and, not least, the powers it has to overrule the sovereign laws of member governments. Until now, his timetable for a referendum appeared to have the grudging support of his coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, and, albeit low-key, the opposition Labour Party. 
 
But all this could be about to change. Ed Miliband is being hard-pressed by his closest advisors to upstage Cameron by calling for an early referendum, as soon as 2014, and certainly no later than Britain's next general election in 2015. This, Miliband is being told, would chime with public opinion. Apart from reducing potentially damaging speculation about the UK's future role in the EU, it would snatch the initiative from both the Tories and UKIP and give Labour the boost with electors which it needs. If he is convinced this is a good tactic, Miliband could issue his call for an EU referendum next week when his party holds its annual conference.