UCL European Institute


How much closer are we to Brexit?

08 May 2015, 12:00 am

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If the British general election was a shock to many in the UK, then it was equally so for the chancelleries across the European Union. As much as they had started to think about a British renegotiation and referendum, there has been a very strong sense that the election result would throw that out of the window. Any such thoughts are now firmly gone. This commentary explores the outcome of the British General Election and the implications for a British in-out EU referendum.
Dr Simon Usherwood
8 May 2015

Partly because no one seemed to really expect to win a majority, all of the main parties in the election took a relatively firm line on the EU, so that they could use it in any coalition negotiations. Perhaps none had been as firm as the Tories, with their red line on renegotiation and a referendum: having suffering both internally and externally for stepping back from a popular vote on the Lisbon Treaty, David Cameron needed to be seen to following through.

Thus, it should be no surprise that in his earliest pronouncements after the results became clear, Cameron signalled that he was going to push through the necessary legislation for a vote in short order in the new parliament. While his party might disagree about many aspects of European policy, he can be assured that this will pass.

However, the easy part ends there.

Any formal renegotiation still requires a majority of member states to agree to open discussions. With national elections due in 2017 in France and Germany, and several other countries making noises about their price for any concessions to the UK, even this hurdle looks difficult to surmount, even before any agreement by unanimity (with attendant national ratifications). Certainly, any substantial reform agenda cannot be concluded by the end of 2017, when Cameron has said he wants to hold his vote.

This means that more informal routes are likely to come to the fore, in the manner of the Danish or the Irish clarifications and protocols. While legally more messy, they would still allow the British government to mark out some take-homes, without creating more fundamental tensions with their European partners. The danger is that these will be (rightly) decried as tokens, open to later renegotiation by a future, non-Tory-led government.

Thus, even the renegotiation phase of Cameron's policy is up in the air. His backbenchers will feel they have licence to push him harder than ever, especially without the Liberal Democrats present to work as a brake. As Cameron has repeatedly demonstrated during his leadership of the party, his lack of any considered and principled position on the EU means that he is driven more by concerns of party management than anything else. Just as John Major found after the 1992 election, small majorities leave one very exposed to any internal dissent.

But all of this is a prelude to the referendum itself.

The logic of Cameron's approach is that he will have something to show for his efforts at renegotiation, and he can use this to convince his party and the public that membership is good for the UK. While he might lack much clarity about the EU, he has always understood that the transitional costs alone to withdrawal would compromise his wider plans for the economy and the state, and this has made him pragmatically pro-membership. Again, while his front bench might generally agree, that might not stop much internal dissent, especially if he imposes no whip on campaigning.

Cameron's biggest ally will be his European counterparts. Very few continental politicians indeed want to see the UK leave, especially when the EU is under so many other challenges, from Greece, the Eurozone or the rise of populists. This means they will be likely to do their best to help wrap up their concessions as nicely as possible.

Among the other British parties, Labour's position is going to crucial: if they cannot find a leader with more popular engagement than Ed Miliband, they will struggle to mobilise their voters. This is all the more critical for the 'Yes' campaign after the collapse of the Liberal Democrats, who would have been the most comfortable talking up membership.

By contrast, UKIP's peculiar election might help or harm them. On the one hand, their success in vote share (12% overall) will confirm some substantial continuing importance, but the loss of Nigel Farage (even if only for this summer) will rob them of their strongest asset. Even if Farage does return to take control in the autumn, his abrasive manner will make it hard for him to take the lead in the 'No' campaign, especially if it wants to be cross-party. As in 1975, the 'No' group will find it difficult to reconcile the very different critiques of membership that come from across the political spectrum, in contrast to the more centrally-located 'Yes' campaign.

Finally, in all of this, it is vital to remember that this is supposed to be about the British people having a voice on the matter. While the cynical might suggest that the referendum had more to do with thinking that proponents want it because they know what the answer will be, the matter has reached a point in public debate where any step-back from a vote would deeply damage those involved. As such, it is striking that public opinion remains largely unmoved by the question. Its importance in polling data has kept below 10% for almost a decade now, while on the question of membership itself, there has been a persistent increase in support for staying in over the past three years. This suggests that opinion is shallow and moveable. Quite who can make the most convincing arguments on either side remains to be seen.

Putting this all together, while a referendum now is effectively guaranteed to happen, there remain many barriers and uncertainties along the way. Brexit is more possible than it was, but not necessarily more likely.

  • Dr Simon Usherwood is Associate Dean (Learning and Teaching) at the University of Surrey.