In June 2014, people from across Europe will elect the next European Parliament. They probably won’t do so in great numbers: at the last election in 2009, turnout was less than 50% in more than two-thirds of the European Union’s 27 member states.
In the UK, just over 34% of people voted. But next time, it could well be different. The European elections – which inspire apathy among many, and probably no more than a dutiful trudge to the polls for those who do vote – could have a major bearing on the UK’s future role in the world.
A win by the UK Independence Party at the 2014 European elections could set the UK on the course to a referendum on EU membership, and a likely exit from the EU (a rational debate being improbable in the hothouse atmosphere of a referendum campaign). This is something that is already concerning David Cameron.
It may seem absurd to suggest a Ukip win. This is, after all, a party that has no representation in the Westminster parliament. It has a history of infighting, expulsions and defections in the European Parliament and is a marginal annoyance in the chamber, with little influence. Ukip’s best ever performance in a national poll was in 2009, when it won 13 of the UK’s 72 seats in the European Parliament and beat Labour into third place. But that result was achieved with only 16.5% of the vote – and that on a low turnout and in an elected directly related to the party’s core issue.
However Ukip is regularly scoring around eight per cent in opinion polls – occasionally nudging ahead of the Liberal Democrats. It has dozens of councillors, especially in the Midlands and the South. And the Conservatives, now in power, will not attract in 2014 the protest vote that helped it to win the last three European elections. With the Conservatives now engrained with Euroscepticism, many Tory members could well lend their vote to Ukip to expedite the road to a referendum.
David Cameron is well aware of this fact – hence this weekend’s shift from opposing a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU (Saturday) to supporting one (Sunday). By Monday morning, his people were floating a potential date of May 2015, to coincide with the next general election.
This is cold and cynical calculation by the Prime Minister. He is cowed by the 100-or-so Tory backbench MPs who are strongly Eurosceptic and either want an ‘in-out’ vote or, as in the case of the former defence secretary, Liam Fox, a fundamental renegotiation of the UK’s engagement in the EU. As The Guardian neatly put it this morning, Mr Cameron is “led by the noes”.
Despite the Prime Minister spending two years telling the country that he is governing in the ‘national interest’, he now appears to be governing in the interests of the Conservative Party. He is playing fast and loose with the UK’s most important international economic and political relationship. It is a dangerous game.
There is a need for a debate on the future direction of the European Union. But it seems odd to consider a referendum when no-one – not even the EU’s leaders – really knows what that direction is.
It is all the more odd when any move in the direction of deeper integration is likely to be vetoed by the UK. I disagree with the use of referendums – but if they are to be used, surely it should be when there is a major constitutional shift? Any constitutional changes at EU level are likely to see the UK stand still, while some others forge ahead. The basis of the UK’s engagement in the EU will remain unchanged.
Some point to an inner core ‘pre-cooking’ decisions that affect the UK as a ‘fundamental change’ as a reason for a referendum. However, this is nothing really new: bilateral and multilateral meetings are held to agree positions and negotiating tactics (that is how the smart countries do it, anyway). Such an argument is merely a pre-text for demanding a referendum when even the conditions of the new European Union Act have not been met.
Others bring up the lack of a referendum on EU membership since 1975. But on what other structural element of our governance do we vote regularly and individually? None. Instead, we elect governments that reflect the collective will – and no government since 1975 has put forward a position of withdrawal, or even of holding an immediate referendum.
The 2014 European elections could change the main parties’ stance. The Tory right is in the ascendancy, forcing David Cameron needs to give them bits of red meat to keep them happy while he continues in government with the Liberal Democrats. Labour is – wrongly in my view – also considering a referendum. The Liberal Democrats lack credibility; so does Ukip in many ways, but it senses it is on the side of public opinion. Sadly, the call for a plebiscite is one that I believe will be difficult to resist – mainly for narrow political reasons.
And so the UK will be left gradually sliding towards an exit. It is depressing for those of us who believe that membership of the European Union is a good thing and the sensible course in a world of shifting power.
‘Very well, alone’ is not going to stand Britain in good stead. The withdrawalists lack a clear idea of a post-EU Britain – whether we become a second Switzerland, a new Norway, a giant Jersey, or something else.
But then the pro-European side also lacks a vision, wracked by the unpopularity of their cause and a lack of direction from Europe’s leaders (with some exceptions). Politicians fear to voice their support for the EU. Political priorities may be elsewhere, but this debate can no longer wait. Pro-European Britons need to develop the ideas and the arguments within the next 700 days, or the game could be up.