by Jonas Brynhildsen. Originally published on 2013/12/22
It can hardly have come as a major surprise to anyone with a vested interest in European or British politics when the Tory Prime Minister, David Cameron, announced his proposal for a referendum on the future of British membership in the EU – a move which represents a marked return to the Conservative party’s traditionally reserved policy towards the European Union. It is equally difficult not to view Mr. Cameron’s announcement in light of the rise of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), especially since the Prime Minister had the fortitude of tying the referendum to his party’s re-election campaign in 2015: if there is a Tory majority, Mr. Cameron will schedule the “Brixit” referendum in 2017 following a new round of renegotiations of Britain’s agreement with the EU.
Euroscepticism has a long tradition in the United Kingdom which is indicative of the country’s ambivalent relationship with continental Europe. This ambivalence has manifested itself in different ways and in different parties during the course of history. When considering the debate today one should not forget that it was a conservative PM, Edward Heath, who led the country into the EEC in the 70’s and that the Labour party supported leaving the EEC as late as 1983. Yet Britain has never been a wholehearted driving force for further European integration, especially when it comes to giving up national powers that are, in many British minds, closely linked to the soul of the British nation. These powers include the country’s powerful currency and the legislative independence of the UK Parliament, which had been made exceedingly clear by Margaret Thatcher during her famous “No, no, no!” speech regarding the single currency and the expansion of Brussels’ power. All in all, the EU has over the years always been seen as an idea with a potentially instrumental value to furthering British goals. Thus, Brussels has been acceptable as long as it does not overstep its bounds. Today, it is becoming apparent that a more isolationist view of British exceptionalism is on the rise.
The fact of Mr Cameron throwing a bone to his own party’s right wing partly coincides with a policy shift geared towards a more sceptic view of the EU from the Conservative party has definitely not gone unnoticed in Brussels. In early September during the European parliamentary debate, the president of the European Commission argued that the European Conservatives and Reformist group (the ECR, which is dominated by the UK Conservative party) was increasingly starting to look like the Eurosceptic fringe represented by UKIP – which, Mr. Barroso claimed, would cost the Conservatives dearly in the future. It is certainly not beyond the realm of possibility that Mr. Barrosso will be proven right, both in political terms for the Conservative party and in the larger view of the country’s economic well-being.
Economic and Political Ramifications
The Conservative party has long been the pro-business party in the United Kingdom but Mr. Cameron’s policy of eurosceptic appeasement has already struck a potentially devastating blow at the party’s reputation, proving the point that British business understands how crucial a role the EU plays in generating British wealth. The Confederation of British Industry (arguably Britain’s most important business lobby) has already pledged its unequivocal support for Britain staying in the EU, citing surveys that show that 4/5 businesses back EU membership. Other important numbers to bear in mind include the estimated 3,000 pounds that EU membership generates to an average British household every year and that 8 out of 10 of Britain’s top export markets are in the EU. And that’s not even mentioning the devastating effect an exit would have on foreign investors in production and finance, many of whom consider the UK to be the gateway to the EU. To further dramatize the point, Nissan, who employs over 6,000 people in the UK, has already announced that it would reconsider its UK investment if the country were to leave the EU. It is not an overstatement to say that Britain cannot afford to lose these investments and the jobs they create, especially not at these precarious times.
Politically, a Brixit would most likely be equally devastating for the Conservative party and for British influence in the world. It is not for nothing that when the Tories turned towards eurosceptiscism before, it had also led to major political defeats for the party. Notable examples include the ousting of Mrs. Thatcher in 1990 which was speeded up by her “No-no-no!” speech, leading to the resignation of her Foreign Secretary, Sir Geoffrey Howe (who considered Thatcher’s position a “tragedy”) and her eventual downfall just a couple of weeks later. It is therefore telling when you consider that both Nigel Farage, the leader of UKIP, and Martin Callanan, the leader of the ECR, often chose to invoke Margaret Thatcher in their rhetoric to portray themselves as defending her legacy on the EU. Another prime example includes the general election of 2001 when William Hague led the party to a clear defeat against Tony Blair’s labour government. It is generally accepted that Tory infighting and obsessive interest over the issue of Europe was a major factor in the party’s failure. It is certainly a revealing fact that it took the likes of David Cameron, arguably the most pro-European party leader the Conservatives have seen for many years, to win back control of the government.
Everything to Win
It is precisely Mr. Cameron’s pro-European record that is haunting his dealings with the present situation, with rebellious Tory backbenchers arguing for a referendum to be held even before 2017 and with UKIP breathing down his neck. The referendum should therefore be seen as a somewhat grudging attempt to appease the eurosceptic winds that are currently blowing and not as something that Mr. Cameron actually wants. He did, after all, pledge to campaign for Britain to stay in the EU when he announced the referendum. The lesson here is that whatever Mr. Cameron does, short of an immediate exit, there is nothing that he can do to fully satisfy the anti-EU sentiments of certain elements in his party and in the country. Neither will it work to win back voters from UKIP, for the very same reason. Looking back trough history clearly shows that the Conservative party has everything to win by siding with the EU: political stability, retaining its role as the undisputed business party of the United Kingdom and, above all, ensuring that Britain’s economy can rise again from underneath the ashes of these last years’ economic crisis. For the sake of Britain and the Conservative party, let’s hope that in the end Mr. Cameron manages to keep his ship on course despite the strong eurosceptic winds. Brixit would be nothing short of folly.