On Wednesday, Prime Minister David Cameron managed to finally deliver a speech that half the Conservative Party has wanted delivered for decades: at some point following the next Parliamentary election due no later than the Spring of 2015, there will be a referendum asking whether or not Britain should remain in the EU. A referendum is expected in 2016 or 2017.
When this speech was first mooted, towards the beginning of this month, most of Europe and several business interests in the UK (e.g. Roger Carr, head of the CBI, Sir Richard Branson, and others; post-speech the reaction was more divided) came out in opposition to Cameron’s desire to have the British (yet again) renegotiate its relationship with Brussels. What really made news here in the UK, however, was the US Assistant Secretary of State for Europe, Phillip Gordon, explicitly warning the British to not screw up their membership in the EU. It made enough of an impression that BBC Radio Devon wanted to do an interview about it, and as I seem to be their go-to-guy for all things American, I got the call.
They had three general questions specifically about the State Department’s remarks. First, why is the US offering such advice? I pointed out that official diplomatic meddling in domestic affairs is rare, but Gordon had explicitly answered this question: “this is in America’s interests” for the UK to remain a key member of the EU. I elaborated by suggesting that the US can use the British as a back door to influence EU policy by proxy. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg agrees. To paraphrase, Clegg asserted that a UK firmly in the European Union is “more valuable” to the United States.
The second question area was whether or not Britain should take the advice of the United States. My response was an unequivocal yes, and for reasons beyond the value of my British passport once I finally plunk down the £850 required for a citizenship application.
The third topic was which relationship should the UK prioritise, Europe or the United States. I said that this was the wrong question to ask (in not so many words), but that the real decision is between the UK’s relationship with Europe or their relationship with the Conservative Party. The Shadow Foreign Secretary would say the same thing: “the real question is the European Union vs. the Interests of the Conservative Party”.
The European Union causes Cameron two political problems, one endogenous and one exogenous to the Tories. The former is the constant struggle within the Conservative Party itself on the question of Europe (a question that might confuse the outside observer as the UK joined the EEC 40 years ago under a Conservative government, and this membership survived a referendum in 1975). This division hasn’t helped any of the Tory PMs since joining, and largely defined John Major’s tenure. Beyond the confines of the Conservative Party, the growing electoral strength of the United Kingdom Independence Party worries (needlessly in my assessment) the Tories. Cameron hopes to both quell internal debate and stem the perceived hemorrhaging of support to UKIP by throwing both constituencies a bone.
Cameron suggested that the referendum would be preceded by a wide ranging renegotiating of Britain’s relationship with Europe, and the operation of the European Union writ large. The latter is with near certainty not going to happen any time soon. The EU spent most of the last decade negotiating and presenting to (some) voters a new constitution, which failed in 2005 to be refashioned as the Treaty of Lisbon in 2007. Currently, the EU, specifically the Eurozone, is struggling with the incentives created by having a single currency and monetary policy without having a common fiscal policy. Reassessing the entire institutional structure and operation is not going to be a priority for the other 26 member states of the union. Furthermore, Britain already has a unique status within the EU, with the range of opt-outs from European policy beyond not being a member of either the Euro or the Schengen Agreement, and the famous “rebate” from its financial responsibilities to Brussels negotiated by Margaret Thatcher. Supranational institutions don’t work very well À la carte, yet the ideal relationship for the Conservative Party and a large segment of the British (or just English and Welsh) population is a European Union that begins and ends with the open, free market.
I was asked for a prediction on who would win such a referendum. I predicted that it would never take place. The referendum is scheduled for after the next Parliamentary election. Labour has led in the polls for 22 of the last 24 months, and the current snapshot has C32/L41/LD11 for a 96 seat Labour majority. Obviously these numbers are not solidly predictive of what would happen in the Spring of 2015, but the Conservatives have a lot of ground to make up if they are to win the outright majority necessary for triggering this referendum. Achieving this majority is even less likely seeing as how boundary changes for Westminster constituencies are almost certainly not going to be enacted prior to the next election. The map changes have been largely estimated to help the Conservative cause.
So what’s this all about, then? I agree with Simon Usherwood, writing over at the LSE blog, that this is a largely political exercise; “As such, it is not going to satisfy most people, since it looks a bit too much like what it is: a fudge and can-kicking.”