As David Cameron promises an in/out referendum on Europe, it remains to be seen if this is a decision made in the national interests or for parochial party political interests
A lot has changed since Britain joined the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1973. The European Union (EU), as it has now become, is far from the thriving economic hub it once was. Back then Britain was still coming to terms with having lost its empire and status as a global superpower, seeking solace with its neighbours across The Channel to help bolster its transition to economic superpower. A mere seven countries (G7) accounted for well over half of the world’s economic output and a majority of those members were European.
Things look a bleaker for the UK in 2013, heading into the fifth year since the ‘Economic Recession’ took hold. Unemployment is high, economic growth is almost as low as faith in our politicians and there is a general malaise and negativity not felt in the country since WW2. Unfortunately things in continental Europe are no better; the failure by its current leaders to resolve the gravest existential and economic crisis in the EU’s 56 year history was not enough to stop another European institution, The Nobel Committee, from lavishing them with back-slapping adulation. Just days after Nazi flags were burnt in the streets of Athens during Angela Merkel’s visit, it was announced, with almost perfect comedy timing, that the EU had won the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize. At least it wasn’t the Nobel Prize for Economics.
However if austerity, unemployment and the drab prospects of the single currency weren’t enough to entice the Brits into a loathing of all things European, then we could always rely on the good ol’ British press. In recent years the EU has become synonymous with straight bananas and Eastern European immigrants, who in oxymoronic terms, manage to pass themselves off as both ‘benefit scroungers’ and those horrible Jonny foreigner types “coming over ‘ere stealing our jobs” – Those strange continentals with their café culture and moderate alcohol consumption who would say; “sacrebleu, mais oui!” at the prospect of a horse burger for under 12 pence per unit.
Consequentially this Eurosceptism is reflected in constituents’ views of EU, where Britons consistently poll as the least enthusiastic members. It seems there are many more Europhobes than Europhiles. The single-issue party United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) has seen an unprecedented rise from the extremities of the political fringe to moving ahead of coalition partners the Liberal democrats in many polls, even coming second to Labour in a pair of by-elections. The conservative vote dropped while the UKIP vote soared.
In a nod to this rising Eurosceptism, both inside and outside his party, David Cameron gave his now infamous ‘Europe speech’ on 23rd January and indicated that the British public will have ‘their say on Europe’ in an IN/OUT referendum of British membership to the European Union. Those in Scotland will certainly see the hilarious irony of Cameron stating that their IN/OUT referendum in 2 years’ time would lead to “uncertainty harming Scotland’s economy and EU membership” only to announce an IN/OUT UK referendum five years down the road. The even more cynical might suggest that this is all a deflection from problems the electorate are facing at home; a failing economy, national debt, the deficit, cuts to public services & education, inflation, property deflation, fuel prices and corporate tax evasion among others, most certainly a very shrewd move by a weakened PM who has presided over the worst economic performance in over half a century and is facing re-election in 2015.
The only constituent group less popular than politicians in the country at the moment are European politicians. And for the Conservative party, the only way to alleviate UKIP’s popularity with their promise of a referendum would be to promise one themselves. Therefore, at least in this instance the Conservatives are using UKIP tactics to win back voters lost to them.
There are however inherent problems with a ‘negotiate-then-validate’ policy, which many in Europe view as a form of blackmail. In spite of the horrendously underreported issue of Britain being at its weakest European influence point in 40 years, Cameron’s gamble is that he can negotiate looser ties with Europe during the tighter integration of the Eurozone economies. Many would like Britain to stay but would not be willing to give up hard-fought regulations on social and labour-market regulation. There is already annoyance by many in Europe who see the EU has having moved decidedly in a free-trading ‘Anglo-Saxon’ direction over the past few years. Germany will probably be willing to give a little, depending on how negotiations go and if they are particularly ill-tempered France may welcome the departure of EU’s most petulant member. It appears that French men are already in favour of Britain leaving. As Cameron will inevitably find out from the majority of Europe; EU membership is not available á la carte.
This act of British blackmail was not lost on MEP and former Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt either, who denied that Cameron was ‘holding a gun to the heads of the other 26 nations’ instead comparing PM’s negotiating style to a suicide bomber “threatening to blow himself up unless he gets his own way”. It also leaves the Labour party in somewhat of a quandary; it was this coalition government that put in place the criteria for which a referendum on Europe would be triggered after the Lisbon Treaty, however this all went out of the window with a combination of Tory backbench rebellion and UKIP’s favourable polling. Europe is not the same gargantuan divisive issue for Labour that it is within the Conservative party. However if Labour don’t similarly sign up to an IN/OUT referendum they’ll be seen as elitist and anti-democratic, not trusting the voters to know what’s best for them. Unfortunately a ‘wait and see’ policy may be sensible diplomacy, but it’s terrible politics and Cameron’s announcement is a real game-changer.
Fortunately for Europhiles, as has happened in various referenda across the world, the initial enthusiasm for leaving a union soon diminishes when it is no longer a protest vote but instead a stark reality. This is reflected in this latest poll by Yougov which shows that for the first time during this parliament more people would vote to stay in the EU than leave. It is of course much too early to call ‘what would happen if’ a downtrodden nation still writhing in a ‘lost decade’ of poor economic conditions in 2017 could very well use a referendum to slap its government (then suffering an inevitable mid-term slump) to expel the nation from the EU. And of course there is the small matter of a Scotland Independence vote beforehand with both referenda having the potential to affect the other. What we can be sure of, is that in the next few weeks, months and years we’re going to hear a lot of arguments both in favour and against UK leaving the EU and its anyone’s guess whether Britons say oui or non.
Image from: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/conservative/9595656/David-Cameron-referendum-on-EU-is-the-cleanest-neatest-simplest-way.html
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