A referendum about the UK’s exit from the EU was proposed by a prime minister positive towards membership, backed by a party supporting membership and made more likely by international politicians wanting to keep the UK in the EU. Is Britain and the EU accidentally being pushed apart?
The European Union without the UK? When Prime Minister David Cameron proposed a referendum concerning the UK exiting the EU, many viewed it as an unlikely outcome. The referendum was conditioned upon conservatives winning a majority of the parliamentary seats in the next general election. Furthermore, the party was intent on renegotiating a more benign deal with the EU before the proposed referendum.
However, developments during the past year have changed this situation. With the next general election coming up in May this year, a British exit from the EU (a so called “Brexit”) is an increasingly more realistic possibility. The growing sentiment within the UK is that they lack influence within the union. The country has struggled with Brussels to forge more UK friendly policies in the EU. In recent years, migration issues have been at the heart of tension between the UK and the EU. In the past decade Britain has seen large net immigration from other EU member states. Especially feared has been the impact from the arrival of less skilled migrants on the labour market. Furthermore, after unexpectedly positive GDP growth, the UK was prompted to pay an additional £1.7bn to the EU, further fueling anger and skepticism towards Brussels. The government response to this growing pressure has been a promise to renegotiate UK’s membership conditions, thereby obtaining a more beneficial deal for Britain.
One might wonder how a looming referendum might impact the negotiating strength of the involved parties. David Cameron has been criticized from his domestic opposition for trying to renegotiate terms with the EU with one hand on the door. However, it is not hard to imagine how the prospect of an exit could make EU decision makers more lenient towards meeting some of Britain’s request. This may indeed have been Cameron’s plan all along and the unspoken motive of promising the referendum.
If this was the strategy it has however suffered a severe setback in the past months as important European leaders have made it strikingly clear that a UK renegotiation of the free market is not a possibility. At the same time, domestic opposition has been undermining the government’s position. The main opposition party, Labour, have opposed the referendum all together, declaring that UK’s future is within and not outside the EU. At the other end, the increasingly popular United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) has criticized all attempts of negotiation futile; something that the EU response so far has not disproved. The space in which Cameron can maneuver in is rapidly shrinking.
In times of uncertain outcomes, attention is turned towards opinion polls. What does the British public want? In general, the British population seems split, with perhaps a small majority supporting leaving the EU. However, the exact phrasing of questions have a huge impact, as support greatly increases for “stay”, should Britain succeed in renegotiating their terms.
The country is also geographically split, England modestly supporting “leave”, while both Scotland and Northern Ireland support “stay”. Hence, the decision of Scotland to stay within UK, following the referendum this fall, may be an important factor for UK’s decision whether to stay in the EU. In Northern Ireland, there are fears that an exit could lead to old conflicts with its neighbour, the Republic of Ireland, flaring up again. This is cited as a reason for the high support for continued EU membership.
So where will the UK and the EU go from here? Several options are possible. First of all, the UK may succeed in renegotiating its EU deal in such a substantial way that a referendum would result in a clear majority for “stay” (or be called off altogether). This would however require deviations from fundamental EU policies on migration or the single market that other EU members would be unlikely to consent to.
Second, UK might remain within the EU by a paradoxical technicality. A failure by Cameron to renegotiate terms with EU would surely raise public support for an exit as well as lessen his party’s domestic support. However, since an exit referendum is conditional upon the conservatives holding power in the parliament, a referendum might not be held, even if British support for membership would decrease.
Third, and perhaps most likely, a referendum would be held in 2017. In this case, a new battle would commence to convince the British population to stay in the union. It is not unthinkable that the EU would be increasingly lenient towards meeting British demands should opinion polls declare the “Brexit” likely. This would be reminiscent of how Scotland voted to stay within the UK after more independence was promised to Scotland in the weeks leading up to the referendum.
Either way, 2015 will be a crucial year for renegotiations and the possibility of an exit referendum. The future of the UK-EU relationship will however be far from settled.