Will Britain Stay in the EU?

25.12.14 Publication:

Britain has never been in love with the European Union. A central part of our national mythology derives from the fact that we haven’t been successfully invaded since 1066 and can stand defiantly independent—mythology which conveniently ignores the fact that our monarchs have in recent centuries been immigrants from first Holland and then Germany. Even so, for 50 years now British elites have felt that being a part of the EU was as much a strategic necessity as being part of NATO. 2015 will put that feeling to its stiffest battle yet. It will probably determine whether or not we will head for a divorce in 2017.

The arena in which this battle will come will be in the general election that is due to be held in May, and then in whatever coalition-forming negotiations may happen in its aftermath. As things stand in the opinion polls, the outcome is shaping up to be rather like that experienced by Italy in February 2013: an inconclusive mess.

If, as looks quite possible, that mess ends up leaving our present prime minister, David Cameron, still in office and hanging on by his fingernails as the head of a minority government (ie one with no parliamentary majority), then the prospects of Britain staying in the EU will be bleak.

Mr Cameron once urged his Conservative Party, shortly after he had become its leader in 2006, to stop “banging on about Europe”, because doing so just alienated voters. Since he became prime minister in 2010, having failed to win a clear majority in the general election, he has himself been committing exactly the sin he warned against.

He would argue that he has been forced to, as if he had not responded to pressure from his anti-EU party MPs he would have been unable to govern at all. His critics might agree, but would say that he responded in a reckless, or perhaps complacent, way: he tried to quieten his Eurosceptic colleagues by promising to hold a referendum on British membership of the EU during 2017, if he is re-elected as prime minister next May.

This was complacent, if he simply thought he would always win the argument in a referendum and so keep Britain in the EU. It was reckless, if he simply decided to trade a long-term gamble with Britain’s future for a short-term political advantage. And the gamble has gone badly wrong.

Just how badly it has gone wrong will become clear in May. So far, it has gone wrong by handing control of the political agenda not just to his Eurosceptic colleagues but also to his anti-EU populist opponents, the UK Independence Party, led by Nigel Farage.

The rise of similar populist, anti-EU and anti-immigration parties in other European countries might imply that the rise of UKIP would have happened anyway, even if Mr Cameron had not promised a referendum. Against that argument, however, stands the point that Britain has the fastest-growing economy in the EU, a successful electoral backdrop that ought to have allowed Mr Cameron to control the agenda. But so far it hasn’t.

Strangely enough, however, it could prove that the best outcome next May from a pro-European point of view would be if UKIP succeed in winning enough votes and parliamentary seats to be end up dividing the centre-right vote. Currently, UKIP is scoring about 15% in opinion polls, which in Britain’s winner takes all electoral system will win it no more than five or six MPs. But it could take sufficient votes away from the Conservatives to hand more seats to the two pro-EU mainstream parties: Labour and the Liberal Democrats.

The best outcome for Britain’s long-term future in the EU would be a clear victory for the centre-left Labour Party. This remains possible but cannot be counted upon for a simple reason: the leader of Labour, Ed Miliband, is about as convincing a prime minister in the eyes of British voters as Pierluigi Bersani was in the eyes of Italians.

A likelier outcome is another coalition, but this time between Labour and the much-weakened centrist Liberal Democrats, or conceivably with the separatist Scottish National Party. The Scottish separatists are strongly pro-EU, so such a coalition would have the intriguing character of pushing towards the break-up of the United Kingdom (the SNP would certainly make a further referendum on independence a condition of joining a coalition) while keeping its component parts in the European Union.

A mess is the most probable outcome of May’s election. But whatever the mess, quite how Britain handles its always tense relationship with Brussels and its EU partners will depend also on what is happening in the Eurozone itself. An economic recovery, helped by cheaper oil, could persuade Britain to be more pro-EU and more co-operative. Chaos, conceivably driven by electoral politics elsewhere in Europe, could drive Britain further away. The Anglo-European relationship is never easy or simple.