If there was one clear message from the “New political geography of Europe” collection of essays that I edited last year with Jan Zielonka, it’s that all EU politics is local (or at least national). That, of course, is exactly how British attitudes to Europe have appeared to those on the other side of the English Channel for many years. Today there is another example of just that: the second reading of a “Private Member’s Bill” in parliament, proposing an “In/Out” referendum on Britain’s EU membership by 2017.
First, a very short explainer of what this means. The bill was put forward by Conservative MP James Wharton, who says it would give the British people “a real choice” within a “sensible timeframe”, following a hoped-for renegotiation of the UK’s EU membership. The bill echoes a promise by Prime Minister David Cameron for such a referendum should the Conservative Party win an outright majority at the next election. However, opposition from the Conservative’s coalition partner, the Liberal Democrats, means the promise has not been turned into a government bill. A Private Member's Bill is an opportunity for ordinary MPs (rather than the government) to propose laws - the chance of any being passed into law tends to be slim, but the support of the prime minister will help in this case.
So just what is going on with the #letbritaindecide campaign? As I noted, this is EU politics at the national level – even the party level. Conservative MPs, many of whom have a Eurosceptic streak, are also wary of the electoral danger posed by the UK Independence Party, which is making hay with its Euroscepticism. The euro crisis (which has exacerbated Britain’s own economic troubles), and the fumbling EU response to it, have made many Britons question the nature of the club they are part of. Other issues have fed in to this: for instance UKIP has recently also profited from demonstrating that the EU issue is linked to another popular touchstone: immigration. Add into this the fact that the last time the British people had the chance to vote on the EU was way back in the 1970s, and that the EU seems to be on the verge of a considerable leap towards integration that runs counter to how the UK sees Europe, and you have a reason for anybody with skin in the game to act now, and act decisively.
Much of this will be familiar to anybody watching the British debate. But here are a few extra thoughts:
1. Although today’s affair will be something of a Conservative Party one, with very little outside input, don’t be fooled into thinking that the renegotiation/referendum combo will only come about under the Conservatives. For instance, UKIP is managing to position itself as a party for the disenfranchised working class, eating directly into Labour support too. Labour will be under a lot of pressure to match the Conservative push for an In/Out referendum.
2. Back in ECFR’s “Ten Trends for 2013” I argued that the British debate over Europe would become less toxic. Was I being naive? Well maybe, but now that we’re half way into the year I see vague signs of vindication. UKIP are a real threat to both main parties, and with the Conservatives buoyed by recent signs of recovery in the economy (the economy will be the big issue at the next election for both parties), there is a genuine reason for both parties (and all but the most recalcitrant MPs) to talk rather less frequently about Europe. At the same time, in keeping with the research conducted by Peter Kellner for ECFR, the practical rather than ideological case for membership is being made by more and more influential bodies - in particular by industry and business leaders.
3. Signs that the European debate is moving in favour of the British argument for competiveness over solidarity, the free-market over intervention, at least in some countries in the EU, has been duly noted here on these shores. The strengthening of the personal relationship between David Cameron and Angela Merkel is evidence of this. After all, Cameron’s position is that membership of the club is the best option, provided that club changes (with leaving being the nuclear option). This is not just rhetoric or forked-tongue diplomacy. If the Union itself changes, a Yes vote in a referendum will have broad political support and is the sensible bet (although David Cameron may not survive it either way).
In short, today’s colourful events in Westminster are eye catching and are likely to trundle on as a piece of theatre for a while yet (I am not going to predict how it will end up). But remember that they are local politics, rather than anything that is likely to prove too significant on the European stage (probably!).
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