Sunday, 8 March 2015

Effect of general election on EU membership

Brendan Donnelly, Director of the Federal Trust and Treasurer of the European Movement UK writes here. Two paragraphs stood out for me.

Britain’s future in the European Union will be greatly affected by the results our idiosyncratic electoral system generates for the next Parliament. It is only if Labour is able, alone or in coalition, to construct a government likely to last for five years that the uncertainty around British membership will be dissipated.  Labour has said often and forcefully that it would only put the question of British membership of the Union to a referendum if it wished in government to sign a further European Treaty involving significant further sovereignty-pooling by the United Kingdom. No such prospect is imminent or indeed likely in the foreseeable future.  If the Parliamentary arithmetic allowed the Labour Party and, say, the Liberal Democrats to achieve together an absolute majority after May, the possibility of the European referendum pledged by the Conservative Party would recede into the distant future. Present predictions do not however suggest that even a coalition between Labour and the Liberal Democrats would suffice for a Parliamentary majority after the next General Election. Any Labour government would probably need to come to an arrangement with the SNP, an arrangement the terms and duration of which are extremely difficult to predict.

I am not quite as sanguine as Mr Donnelly. Labour has a significant number of Eurosceptics in its ranks and it would be surprising if the make-up of the parliamentary party after the election were to be much different. Moreover, the Blair-Brown years were marked by a distancing from the EU.

If on the other hand the Conservative Party is able to form the next British government, alone or in coalition, there will certainly be a referendum on the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union. Uncertainty will continue however to attach to the date, the circumstances and the outcome of this referendum.  There have been suggestions that Mr. Cameron, possibly in deference to the wishes of UKIP, may wish to hold an earlier referendum than his originally favoured date of 2017. This would be to recognize the unachievability of the radical renegotiation of the terms of British membership of the Union which many Conservatives favour and which Mr. Cameron has publicly supported until now. An early referendum would have the advantage from Mr. Cameron’s point of view of bringing the European issue more quickly to a head within his party.  He will dread the prospect of two years of largely futile “renegotiation” with his European partners, accompanied by complaints from his backbenchers that he is not being ambitious enough in his demands.  Nevertheless, Mr. Cameron must be aware that an early referendum will expose him to the accusation of abandoning the careful compromise that kept the Conservative Party together in the latter half of the last Parliament, a compromise to which significant renegotiation of the terms of British membership of the European Union was essential.
A great opportunity for an in/out referendum, which would have cleared the air for a generation, was missed in 2012. I would still trust the British people not to be swayed by the disproportionate amount of anti-EU propaganda in the media, including the BBC, but it could be a close-run thing, especially if the party in opposition treats a referendum as a verdict on the incumbent government rather than on its merits. The wrong decision would also give an irresistible boost to Scottish separatism.

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