World

Accidental Brexit: The UK Election Could See It Leaving the EU

Miliband Cameron
Whether Ed Miliband or David Cameron end up in Number 10 Downing Street after May 7 could be the difference between Britain staying in or leaving the European Union. Getty

David Cameron is being urged to hold an early referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union within the first year of any new Conservative government – possibly as soon as next spring – in a move designed to put the ‘out’ campaigners at a disadvantage and persuade the electorate to live with limited reforms to the club of nations’ rules.

The Conservative prime minister and his Labour rival, Ed Miliband, this week embarked on the final stages of a general election campaign so far dominated by two mainstream issues: the extent of the economic recovery, and which side can better safeguard the cherished but expensive National Health Service. Just beneath the surface, however, are existential questions about the United Kingdom’s identity and its place in the world.

The most pressing of these is whether Britain will remain part of the European Union and, if so, on what terms. Pro-Europeans in the UK are nervous that Britain will find itself moving towards ‘Brexit’, and doing so almost by accident, because David Cameron, himself in favour of remaining in the EU, has committed himself to an ‘in or out’ vote before the end of 2017, a vote he now finds he may lose.

Nigel Farage, leader of the insurgent United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), has predicted the rumbling Europe debate will “break out into the open” before 7 May, and “will come to dominate the election campaign.” Farage wants the UK to go it alone, but none of the main party leaders believes Britain should leave the club of 28 nations it joined in 1973. Now all three rivals and their teams, are preoccupied with how to prevent what almost every senior politician has described as “sleepwalking towards the exit”.

Cameron, however, is alone in leading a party that has remained deeply divided over Europe since the end of Margaret Thatcher’s premiership in 1990 and the humiliation of Black Wednesday in 1992, when the Conservative government was forced to withdraw the pound from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism at a cost counted in the billions. Rumbling Tory discontent has now, critics say, brought the UK to the brink of isolation.

The prime minister made his promise of an ‘in-out’ referendum in January 2013 to pacify his restive Eurosceptic backbenchers. Staring directly into the camera during a speech at Bloomberg’s London HQ, he talked solemnly about the nation’s destiny: “I say to the British people: this will be your decision.”

This is one commitment Cameron will not be able to break during talks with other parties in a coalition government, the most likely outcome. “He can’t wriggle out of this one,” admits a senior Liberal Democrat, as the UK’s most pro-European party, bruised by five years of coalition, ponders how it would handle another bout of power-sharing talks.

HEART AND SOUL

In 2013, the prime minister promised to campaign “heart and soul” to stay in – provided he could secure changes to EU rules. That full-throated enthusiasm for remaining in a reformed EU has since been tempered, drawing much criticism of what one fellow Conservative calls “appeasement and fudging.” But the tactics have been enough to get him successfully to the end of his first term in office, and possibly back into Number 10 again.

For now the prime minister wants to keep the EU off the agenda – his Australian election guru Lynton Crosby thinks anything that distracts from the main theme of economic recovery is to be avoided and has told the Tories to “get the barnacles off the boat”. But if he wins enough seats in the House of Commons to form a government, attention will swiftly turn to a European summit in June.

Can other EU leaders be persuaded that it is in all of their interests to make the Union more popular with its own citizens? The UK wants to extend the single market to boost growth and change the rules on welfare benefits for immigrants. This latter point would be a response to the growing hostility to new arrivals that has prompted the resurgence of right-wing parties across the continent, and so could, say observers, find favour in other capital cities. With Marine Le Pen of the French far-right Front National also promising she will hold an in-out referendum if elected to the presidency in 2017, might Paris and Berlin see these reforms as helpful?

Flags The Union Flag flies next to the European Flag outside the European Commission building in central London, May 25, 2014. Neil Hall/Reuters

“He’ll certainly get a better and a quicker deal if he frames it as what’s good for Europe,” says another former minister – MPs are unwilling to speak on anything other than an anonymous basis during this knife-edge election campaign, for fear of tipping a few votes towards UKIP even by mentioning the immigration and the EU.

Chancellor George Osborne, Cameron’s closest political friend and colleague, is expected to take a lead role in the talks, and has support from political opponents in his desire to ensure that non-Eurozone countries like the UK don’t become second-class citizens as the Eurozone becomes more closely unified after the debt crisis. Ministers also say they want to tone down the “ever-closer union” rhetoric of EU integration, and want national parliaments to be able to club together and block initiatives from Brussels.

Publicly, the prime minister is sticking to his commitment to hold a referendum by the end of 2017 – last month he told The Financial Times “Of course if you can do it in 2016 nobody would be more glad than me, but I expect it will take longer because there are a lot of moving parts.”

But behind the scenes, Conservatives plotting the best way to sell staying in a reformed EU to the electorate believe they could bring the vote forward to next year. They say that would avoid the risk of losing what might become a mid-term verdict on a second Conservative-led period of government, and are confident that the ‘in’ side of the argument, boosted by a rapid set of successful renegotiations with Brussels, would steal a march on what they call the “better-off-outers”.

As a senior pro-European business figure puts it: “Having a referendum in the middle of a parliament is just about the worst possible thing to do if you want to avoid a kicking.” And a kicking, in this case, would mean what Cameron has warned is “a one-way ticket”.

OUT-KIPPERING THE KIPPERS

Brave is usually a synonym for foolish in the lexicon of UK politics. But could this audacious scheme work and bounce the British into choosing a European destiny? With the polls showing an increasingly healthy margin for ‘in’ – 46% would vote to remain in the EU and 36% to leave, according to YouGov – the pro-Europeans want to strike as soon as possible.

Some pollsters claim Farage and the other ‘kippers’ have pushed uncommitted voters who dislike his brash patriotism – and his social conservatism – into the pro-Europe camp. Confidence among pro-EU Tories has been boosted.

Peter Wilding, a Conservative, set up British Influence as a cross-party campaign to try and defrost the nation’s scepticism of all things European. It has already begun to rebrand as the ‘In’ campaign. According to Wilding the tide has turned: “A lot of Tory MPs now realise they can’t out-UKIP the kippers, those in their own local parties have left, and they have woken up to the fact Farage puts off more than he attracts.” He describes a central, moderate block of Conservative MPs, including the new intake after May, “waiting for a lead from the PM”.

This positive reading of Cameron’s ability to hold his party together during an ‘in’ campaign is repeated in their view of the electorate. “There are committed ‘in’ voters and committed ‘out’ voters,” says a spokeswoman. “Most in the middle don’t know, but they would like to see Britain achieving things in the world, among friends, not isolated. They want to see Britain prevailing.”

Clegg Farage Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage have opposite views on Britain's membership of the EU. Getty

Hence the importance, she adds, of Cameron’s reform drive. “I hope there is a referendum,” says Damian Green, a former immigration minister and one of the most prominent pro-EU voices on the Tory side. “I do think it’s time to put this question to bed. I’m confident Britain will vote to stay in and that we can then remove this cloud hanging over British public life.”

The biggest headache, and one that makes even the most optimistic of the ‘inners’ pale as they make their tactical calculations, is whether the changes will need a change to the EU’s treaties. If so, it could trigger constitutional nightmares right across the rest of the union. There is said to be ‘no appetite’ in Berlin, Paris or any other capital city for such a move.

According to Denis MacShane, a one-time Europe minister in Tony Blair’s government and author of a new book on possible Brexit, referendums to approve changes to EU terms usually result in a ‘no’ from the disgruntled populace – how many governments will want to take that risk again after the lost referendums in France, the Netherlands and Ireland during the 2000s?

But Cameron has to make the reforms look substantial, so the Tory negotiators hope to persuade other nations to agree a package that could be tagged on to the next big accession treaty when new nations join the EU.

LEAVING BY DEFAULT

The anti campaign, already preparing their reasons to reject whatever deal Cameron and Osborne can bring back from Brussels, are setting the bar for renegotiation impossibly high, say British Influence. Business for Britain, limbering up on the other side, insists it will not take a position until the reform package is on the table. But its chief executive Matthew Elliott, a hardened campaigner credited with a major role in defeating the 2011 referendum on reforming the voting system, is widely expected to organise any ‘out’ campaign. He wrote last month: “It is hard to see how any deal which did not include a substantial Treaty change would win the backing of the British public (to say nothing of Eurosceptic Tories).”

Campaign director Robert Oxley accuses other business groups of “paying lip service to the idea of reforming the EU when all the polls show the public want much less power going to Brussels. We need to see some major changes and if you can’t get that deal, then you shouldn’t be scared of looking at the alternatives.”

Oxley’s team has been lobbying the Labour side, and claim half Miliband’s shadow ministerial team want their leader to echo the referendum promise – UKIP is also eating into traditional working class Labour votes, especially in the north of England.

But Pat McFadden, a one-time senior Blair aide and now Ed Miliband’s frontbench spokesman on Europe, has no truck with such talk. He is concerned the UK may end up leaving “by default” and thinks a plebiscite would be too risky – even with the sort of united front that might make a quick-fire renegotiation and 2016 referendum result in a ‘yes’. “This is a moment of danger for the country, because the prime minister has allowed the prospect of leaving to be regarded as a kind of 50-50 possibility, and has been pushed and pulled by his sceptical backbenchers.”

MacShane agrees that there are powerful reasons to be worried that Cameron’s plan could go wrong. “There are a number of currents, tributaries if you like, in Britain that are very deep, fast moving, haven’t just arrived overnight, that if they come into a confluence then they are likely to produce an out vote.”

The pollster who kept Gordon Brown in touch with public opinion when he was in Downing Street, Deborah Mattinson, is also doubtful about the “go early” plan. “At the moment the ‘out’ arguments are more accessible, and the ‘in’ camp might need longer to make a similarly appealing case. Otherwise it boils down to using the fear factor.”

Only one voter in a range of pre-election focus groups being conducted by her company, Britain Thinks, has brought up the EU. But immigration is high among voters’ priorities and the two are related because EU citizens have the right to live and work anywhere in the union. “It’s a sleeping issue but things are very volatile and it could rise to the top. We also find that policymakers and businesspeople are already fixated with this, and with what a referendum would look like.”

Prospects are not as positive as they were during the only previous plebiscite on Europe, held in 1975, when a range of popular figures from across the political divide took to platforms around the UK to secure public approval for what was then the Common Market. “Frankly we had only been in for about five minutes and everybody was in favour’ says MacShane. “And Europe is no longer the compelling economic attraction that it was.”

Scotland’s referendum on independence last September – when a melange of popular grassroots groups joined the Scottish Nationalists in tempting 45% of voters to reject the warnings of the political and business elites – has spooked the establishment about its ability to influence a restless electorate.

But Matthew Goodwin, an academic who has cornered the market in detailed study of UKIP’s rise in traditional blue-collar areas, where poorer Britons feel themselves left behind by globalisation, believes it can be done.

He cites the new British Social Attitudes survey, an important document in taking the nation’s temperature, which shows that 69% of Britons think it is important to be allowed to live and work in other EU nations, and a higher proportion wanting to remain in a less powerful EU than leave.

NO WAY BACK

While varying degrees of neuralgia have set in at the top of the mainstream parties as they ponder the possibility that Britain will vote to leave the EU, two sets of insurgents are delighted, but for different reasons.

The Scottish Nationalists, for their part, see this as another opportunity to reopen the question of independence: Nicola Sturgeon, the party leader, and her predecessor Alex Salmond, have insisted that Scotland, which benefits from both EU regional funding and immigration to top up its working-age population, would not want to go. They say no referendum could be binding unless all three mainland nations, England, Scotland and Wales, voted the same way. So the results of a referendum on the European Union could be the excuse for Scottish secession despite September’s independence vote having gone against the separatists.

For UKIP, any airtime devoted to these issues is a help in splitting off Conservative voters and pursuing the end-goal of Brexit. “UKIP’s strategic success has been to elide the issue of Europe’s free movement of people with immigration,” says McFadden with grudging admiration.

As an MP for Wolverhampton, the West Midlands town where the virulently anti-immigration Enoch Powell was once an MP, he is sensitive to divisive rhetoric in a place where industrial decline has led to a loss of jobs and identity: “Immigration is an issue that has blown hot and cold in Britain.” Powell’s 1968 ‘rivers of blood’ speech [in which the Conservative MP warned of violent consequences of Commonwealth immigration and was disowned by the political mainstream] marked a previous ‘hot moment’ he says.

For now, he wants to stop a referendum in its tracks. But he admits the challenge won’t end there. “Popular resentment about the European Union, concerns about immigration, about globalisation aren’t going to go away. But how do you respond to those concerns?”

He calls this “the defining question for political leadership in our age. I say you have to give people a chance not a grievance, because getting out of Europe and pursuing this illusion of control is the politics of nostalgia and nationalism.”

But Open Europe, a business thinktank, argues that even if Labour’s Ed Miliband won the election and ended up in Downing Street, there is a significant chance of an in-out referendum during the next five years. And it’s a tall order in that timeframe to tempt disenfranchised, alienated, working class Britain away from UKIP. No wonder the only smiles are, once again, on the faces of the political agitators.

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