With or without EU? Britain set to decide its future in Europe

Even as the European Union has found itself facing a host of critical challenges on a number of fronts, the United Kingdom is preparing to add another headache, one that could reverberate across the EU member states.

Updated - April 02, 2016 11:55 pm IST

Published - July 09, 2015 05:56 pm IST

 British Prime Minister David Cameron walks past an EU flag during his visit in Brdo pri Kranju, Slovenia June 18, 2015.  REUTERS/Srdjan Zivulovic

British Prime Minister David Cameron walks past an EU flag during his visit in Brdo pri Kranju, Slovenia June 18, 2015. REUTERS/Srdjan Zivulovic

While still struggling to overcome the worst economic recession in the post-war era, the European Union (EU) has found itself facing a host of critical challenges on a number of fronts. Clouds of economic uncertainty hang over Greece and its future in the EU; no viable solution to the protracted crisis in neighbouring Ukraine seems in sight; while political instability in West Asia and Africa has seen a surge in refugees trying to escape to Europe. In the midst of these and other challenges, the United Kingdom (UK) is preparing to add another headache, one that could reverberate across the EU member states.

After the >surprise election of a majority Conservative (Tory) government in May 2015 , the UK Prime Minister, David Cameron, has been quick to launch an initiative for achieving “real change in Europe”. With a vocal Euro-sceptic wing in his party, the Conservative election manifesto promised “an in-out referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU.” It called the EU “too bureaucratic and too undemocratic,” adding that “the scale of migration triggered by new members joining in recent years has had a real impact on local communities.”

After the election – and with the absence of a coalition partner in government this time around – there was suddenly no room left for Mr. Cameron to undertake any maneuvering on the issue of a referendum. It will now certainly take place before the end of 2017, and possibly as early as next year. Mr. Cameron immediately embarked on a whistle stop tour of European capitals to generate support for Britain’s demand of reforms prior to the referendum. While German Chancellor, Angela Markel, expressed some sympathy for Mr. Cameron’s concerns, there has hardly been an encouraging response from leaders across Europe, many who do not see why the UK should be given special treatment. The more immediate danger of a “Grexit” has also overshadowed Mr. Cameron’s initiative.

Is Britain Euro-sceptic?

The UK has never exactly been in a league of EU enthusiasts. It joined the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1973, which was followed by a referendum on continued membership in 1975. It did not join the Schengen Visa free area of the EU, and rejected the idea of replacing its currency, Pound sterling, with the Euro.

Amongst the various economic and political reasons for opting out of these mega-projects of European integration, there has also been the sense of a country trying to come to terms with a dramatically diminished role in world politics.

The latest round of Euro-scepticism in the UK has occurred at the same time as a period of austerity and economic slowdown. In 2011, the unemployment rate in Britain touched over 8 percent, which was followed by a surge in support for the populist and anti-immigration UK Independence Party (UKIP), which is stridently against the UK remaining in the EU. The party is led by an idiosyncratic former commodity broker, Nigel Farage, under whose leadership it has emerged as a major political force, securing 27.5 per cent of the vote and 24 seats in elections to the European Parliament in 2014; and 12.6 per cent of the vote but only one MP to the UK Parliament in May 2015. As well as anti-immigration sentiments, UKIP plays on a frustration that the UK remains one of the largest contributors to the EU - although in 2013 its net contribution to the EU budget was only slightly more than France and much less than Germany.

The dividend of EU membership is articulated by the European Commission as “peace, political stability, security and freedom to live, work, study and travel anywhere in the Union [which] cannot be measured”. It is for these reasons that Mr. Cameron is likely to campaign for a “Yes” vote for the UK staying in the EU.

However, this will depend on him first being able to claim that he has achieved certain reforms to the UK’s relationship with the EU, such as a commitment to Britain having an opt-out to “ever-closer union;” securing powers to deny EU-migrants access to UK benefits for four years; cutting “excessive interference” on British business from EU “red-tape”; as well as greater independence for the UK financial sector.

He will likely be joined in any Yes to Europe campaign by the Labour Party, the Scottish National Party (SNP), as well as what is left of the Liberal Democrats, his former coalition partners. However, many of his Tory party will be enthusiastically campaigning to leave the EU. Helping the campaign for a “Yes” vote may be a declining unemployment rate - around 5.4 percent in early 2015 - and more positive predictions on economic growth in both the UK and the EU.

Estimating the Consequences

Recent opinion polls have shown increasing support for the UK remaining in the EU. However, such polls did not predict a Tory win in May, and they also proved inaccurate during the referendum on Scottish independence. What is certain is that the EU referendum will ignite a passionate exchange between Euro-sceptics and enthusiasts in Britain as well as across the EU member-states, many of which have seen anti-EU parties gain a foothold in recent years. This debate could involve the EU institutions deviating from tackling ongoing regional problems towards a focus on holding onto its members. On the other hand, it could also force much needed reform and soul-searching on the future of the EU, which could work to strengthen its organisations and legitimacy.

However, the impact of any British exit would be far greater for the UK, than it would for the EU. A “Brexit” would almost certainly trigger renewed demands for Scottish independence, with the SNP resolutely pro-Europe and holding 56 of 59 parliamentary seats in Scotland. It is difficult to imagine that a UK outside of the EU, and without Scotland, would have any enhanced status in the world. The attractiveness of the UK for investment could also be seriously diminished if it found itself outside of the EU common market, which could see major investors from the likes of Japan, North America, and India leaving en masse. The myth of “a special relationship” with the United States, or a renewed role for the Commonwealth seems highly implausible, and Washington has already expressed its reluctance at the idea of a “Brexit” and a reduced role for the United Kingdom in the region. With a slim Parliamentary majority and a Tory Party split on the Europe issue, the next few months of negotiations and referendum preparations may well determine Mr. Cameron’s future as well as that of the country. He may find that keeping Britain in Europe turns out to be easier than holding onto his current job.

(Paul Richardson, Leverhulme Early Career Fellow, School of Arts, Languages, and Cultures, University of Mancheste r).

( Dhananjay Tripathi, Assistant Professor Department of International Relations, South Asian University )

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