Voting on Brexit: The EU issues shaping the UK election

Britain at a crossroads

Britain at a crossroads. [Shutterstock]

The May 7 UK general election will go a long way towards deciding whether Britain will stay in the European Union, or choose to leave, after forty years of uneasy relations.

A surge in Eurosceptism has firmly pushed the European Union up the political agenda in Britain.

The ruling Conservatives have promised an in/out referendum on EU membership before the end of 2017 if they win the election, placing Europe's future at the centre of the debate. 

Prime Minister David Cameron has said he would campaign for the UK to stay, but only if the EU was able to reform, saying “Britain’s national interest is best served in a flexible, adaptable and open European Union.”

However, five years after the formation of the UK’s first coalition government since World War II, the polls are pointing to another hung parliament.

Former minority parties such as the anti-EU UK Independence Party (UKIP) and the pro-EU Green Party now see a realistic chance of entering government via a coalition with either the Conservatives or Labour. 

>> Follow our rolling coverage: Countdown to UK election: A vote on Europe?

A year after European elections in Britain were won by the UK Independence Party (UKIP), and two years from a potential in/out referendum, "Europe" is no longer a topic the parties can afford to keep quiet about.

The Tories' approach to the EU is "renegotiation and referendum". They want to reform the UK relationship with the EU and then put that reformed relationship to a referendum by the end of 2017.

>> Read: Cameron takes gamble with in/out EU referendum pledge

Meanwhile, the opposition Labour Party are committed to Britain's place in Europe, but are equally committed to reform of the EU. The party said it wants to make the "hard-headed, patriotic case both for Britain in Europe and for change in Europe".

Labour is also considering an EU referendum, but said it would only do so if there was a substantial further shift of powers from London to Brussels.

>> Read: UK Labour too considers EU referendum, timing unknown

With their leader, Nick Clegg, a former MEP, the Liberal Democrats are the most prominently pro-European party in the UK.

Clegg debated UKIP leader Nigel Farage ahead of the European elections in 2014 and was widely regarded to have lost. The party is clear they want the UK to remain in the EU, but they face a tough challenge to retain their position as the UK's third largest party after five years in coalition.

The UK Independence Party's (UKIP) position is the clearest on the issue. They want the UK to leave the European Union as a first step towards regaining Britain's 'lost' national sovereignty.

The Greens have a strong presence in the European Parliament and are currently experiencing a surge in membership across the UK.

The environmentalists are strongly in favour of the EU and the role it plays in environmental legislation, work place protections and freedom of movement, but also seek reform, and back a referendum on membership. 

In the upcoming election campaign, the debate over the EU will be dominated by the question of an in/out referendum and the issue of immigration.

EURACTIV asked UK-based think tanks to analyse the policy implications of the European positions held by the main political parties.

  • In/out referendum on EU membership

The UK entered the EEC in 1973 after a referendum returned a result of 67% in favour. But it did not hold a referendum on any of the subsequent major EU treaty modifications, whether in Maastricht (1992), Amsterdam (1999) or Lisbon (2009). 

The 2011 European Union Act was designed to remedy this. Now, a referendum will have to be held on any future EU treaty change transferring additional powers from London to Brussels.

In January 2013, Prime Minister David Cameron promised to hold an in/out referendum on EU membership by 2017 if the Conservatives win the next election. The vote will take place after renegotiation of the terms of membership and a "new settlement" on membership for the UK is reached. 

Cameron was widely believed to have offered the vote to appease the Eurosceptic wing of the Conservative Party and to fend off the rise of the UK Independence Party. Neither appears to have been successful, and the announcement ignited debate about the reforms the UK should pursue in Europe.

The issue of a referendum will be a constant presence during the election campaign, with the Tories seeing it as a major vote winner for their party. 

>> Read: Two years after Cameron's EU speech: Is Britain closer to leaving?

Sunder Katwala, of British Future, a non-partisan think tank, says the EU has a long history of dividing the Conservatives. He says the party "is now united around offering an in/out referendum, though significant sections of it will find themselves in different camps once that question is put".

As for the Labour Party, its position of not holding a referendum unless a significant transfer of powers takes place from London to Brussels "has won the party friends in the business community who fear the uncertainty a referendum would bring", Katwala said. "UKIP's call for a referendum has increasingly centred on the issue of migration," says Katwala, which is "the issue that matters most to UKIP voters".

The Tories have said they will hold a referendum by 2017 at the latest if returned to government. There have been recent calls to bring this date forward. Katwala says such a move would limit both sides' ability to hone a message that reaches out beyond their base support. "The EU referendum will be decided by voters who don’t think or care too much about Europe." 

"Whether Britain remains in the European Union could well be the biggest issue of the next Parliament. But it will have a lower profile in this election, where the parties will argue mainly over the merits of holding a referendum."

  • Institutional reform: Giving national Parliaments a greater say

Last May, the pledge rang out across Europe, "This time is different". A year on, the question remains - was it? Turnout was an all time low of 43%. In the UK, it was even lower: 34%

This has raised questions over the democratic deficit of the EU, and the extent to which the EU makes rules in areas in which it has little accountability. 

Debates surrounding a federalist-like integration of the eurozone in the wake of the sovereign debt crisis has raised fears in Britain that so-called "euro-in" countries will club together to push their own agenda, leaving the "euro-outs", such as Britain and Denmark, on the sidelines. Other institutional debates, such as the removal of the European Parliament's Strasbourg seat in favour of a single one in Brussels, are also popular in the UK and stir endless media controversy.

But with major EU institutional changes still fresh from the adoption of the Lisbon Treaty, which entered into force in 2009, there is little appetite for another round of institutional negotiations.

A greater role for national parliaments may prove popular around the EU, according to Agata Gosty?ska, a Research Fellow in EU Institutions at the Centre for European Reform (CER), a pro-European think tank. But gaining support in Brussels may be more difficult, she says. 

“The Commission will be hesitant to support the idea of granting parliaments veto rights on legislative proposals," she said referring to British calls for a 'red-card' system allowing EU countries to veto proposed legislation. "The European Parliament, which still treats [national] parliaments as its rivals rather than allies, will oppose it too," she predicts.

While the principle might be of interest to the most eurosceptic member states, formal agreement on a red-card principle would in any case require a treaty change. Any such move would be highly unpopular everywhere except the UK, because the unanimity rule would almost certainly bring EU institutions to a standstill.

Instead of such blunt instruments, Gosty?ska argues there is scope for more parliamentary scrutiny of the government's actions at EU level, within the existing treaties. 

“British MPs often complain the government does not share all the relevant documents with them. Some MPs would also like to have more regular parliamentary debates ahead of the European Council [of EU heads of states]. The reform of the British parliamentary scrutiny practice could boost parliamentarians’ interest in EU affairs and facilitate their greater involvement in the EU decision making process.”

Eurosceptics are also in for bitter disillusionment on the single seat campaign for the European Parliament, where their interests match those of EU federalists. Despite widespread support in the UK, Gosty?ska says agreements on the issue remains highly unlikely.

Indeed, when it comes to treaty change, unanimity is required and Paris will not doubt wield its veto. “France is vitally interested in keeping Strasbourg as one of the Parliament’s seats and will oppose any attempts to move plenary sessions to Brussels,” she says.

In addition, the Conservatives are likely to campaign for limiting the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights, which many in the party see as encroaching on British sovereignty. Home Secretary Theresa May said Britain should consider leaving the European Convention on Human Rights, because it interferes with the government's ability to fight crime and control immigration. 

"Despite not being an EU institution, it is linked to the wider Europe question by much of the electorate,” says Pawel Swidlicki a Policy Analyst at Open Europe, a euro-critical think tank.

  • Economic reforms and trade

The EU has long been considered in the UK as an overbearing influence, with many arguing that the benefits of the EU single market for goods and services are drowned out by excessive red tape and regulation (even if the British press is keen on making them up).

The Conservative Prime Minister, David Cameron, said the EU had become "out of touch" with its citizens, with "pointless rules and regulations that stifle growth, not unleash it". He said Britain should use the eurozone sovereign debt crisis as an opportunity to re-shape the Union as a network rather than a bloc. Britain, he continued, should seize the opportunity "for powers to ebb back instead of flow away" from national governments.

The UK would seek EU opt-outs on directives affecting labour rights and financial services regulation if eurozone countries adopt fundamental treaty changes, Cameron told the UK Parliament in 2011.

Cameron believes he can win backing from Germany, which also wants economic and institutional reforms, although for different reasons. During the eurozone crisis, Berlin has repeatedly called for changes in EU treaties, needed to strengthen the economic governance inside the eurozone.

Following the eurozone crisis, a key priority of the new Junker Commission is to boost the economic performance of the EU. First Vice-President, Frans Timmermans, has been given the task of reducing red tape, including a review of proposals by the previous Commission yet to be enacted, a move widely seen as a victory for Cameron's campaign to make the EU more efficient.

But the Juncker reforms have not yet convinced British politicians, who tend to judge the EU's performance solely by its ability to generate economic growth. At the same time, most of them are wary that reforms to boost political and economic integration in the eurozone will create a two-tiered Europe, leaving Britain on the sidelines. 

Trade is another area where Britain has traditionally had strong interests. However, while the UK is a big supporter of free trade, there are widespread concerns that the EU-US trade agreement, TTIP, will negatively impact on the National Health Service, described by former chancellor of the Exchequer Nigel Lawson as "the closet thing the English have to a religion". 

According to Swidlicki there are a host of economic reforms that, although facing resistance in some member states, have cross party support in the UK such as "the need to make the EU more dynamic and economically competitive" and the prevention of eurozone members dominating the single market.

"Key reforms are likely to include an aggressive drive to cut EU red tape, to reform and re-focus the EU budget, to properly open the EU market for services and to complete the TTIP free trade deal with the US." 

Sunder Katwala says of all those issues, TTIP is likely to prove the most controversial. The Green Party will seek to raise the profile of TTIP negotiations as it seeks differentiation between itself and the other parties (The Greens oppose TTIP), but Katwala warns, "It is currently an issue much better known to activists than voters."

  • Immigration: Putting the brakes

At the last election, David Cameron said he would reduce net immigration down to the tens of thousands per year "no ifs, no buts."

The latest figures show net immigration to the UK 298,000 - 54,000 higher than it was when David Cameron came to power in 2010. The Conservatives blame a lack of control over EU migration and have said they want to curb EU immigration if reelected in a May 2015 general election. 

In January 2014, the EU labour market was fully opened to citizens from Bulgaria and Romania, which joined the EU in 2007, fueling concerns in the UK and other countries about a surge of immigration from Eastern Europe.

In a major speech made last November, Cameron said the EU should change its rules on immigration, warning he would “rule nothing out" including campaigning to leave the Union if Britain's concerns fall on deaf ears.

Eurosceptics want to stop what they regard as welfare abuse by immigrants who are putting pressure on local services, such as health and housing, without having paid into the system through taxes. 

Public opinion appears divided over the merits of free movement, with several EU countries currently debating whether this has led to "benefit tourism".

In 2013, the interior ministers of the UK, Germany, the Netherlands and Austria sent a letter to the European Commission warning that some cities had come under considerable strain from EU migrants claiming welfare benefits.

However, proposals for a cap on immigration provoked strong warnings from the European Commission, which regards freedom of movement with the EU as sacrosanct.

>> Read: 'Benefits tourism' in the EU is a myth, report says

Introducing restrictions on the principle of free-movement, Swidlicki points out, is something neither Switzerland or Norway have achieved. "Although the proposals set out by David Cameron are more far-reaching than similar proposals set out by Labour and the Liberal Democrats they all agree on this basic principle," says Swidlicki.

"These will require changes to EU laws backed by a majority of member states which again will prove challenging, but since it would keep in place the principle of free movement itself, a compromise should be achievable.”

Such compromises may well involve limiting access to the benefit system for new migrants says Camino Mortera-Martinez, Research Fellow in Justice and Home Affairs at the Centre for European Reform. 

“Germany is already discussing a law to limit the time that EU citizens can stay in the country looking for a job, which is very much in line with Cameron’s approach to EU job-seekers. However, any reforms would still meet the resistance of the European Parliament and the European Commission.”

  • Home affairs, security and defence

The ruling Conservative party had initially warned that Britain would opt-out from all EU matters related to Justice and Home Affairs (JHA). Since the 2009 adoption of the Lisbon Treaty, those matters - where Britain used to have a veto - are now subject to qualified majority voting in the Council, with the European Parliament now upgraded to a full co-legislator role.

Britain, which does not participate fully in the implementation of certain JHA measures, threatened to opt-out entirely from EU cooperation on police and criminal matters, saying it wanted to regain its national sovereignty on those matters.

UK sources said Britain had problems with the European arrest warrant, the Schengen Information System, and some EU agencies such as Europol, Eurojust, along with a few others.

The Centre for European Reform, a British think tank, warned the decision would have "major implications" for Britain's security as the opt-out would make it more difficult for British police to conduct international investigations and convict criminals abroad.

These warnings have not gone unheard. At the end of 2014, the UK opted out and then immediately back again into 35 Justice and Home Affairs measure, including the European Arrest Warrant, Europol and Eurojust. 

Camino Mortera-Martinez, a research fellow on justice and home affairs at the Centre for European Reform (CER), says the debate has now moved on.

“Even the Conservatives seem to be aware of the importance of police and judicial co-operation to fight cross-border crime," she says. However, there is a growing exhaustion towards the British 'pick and choose' approach to judicial cooperation.

After the January 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, the current tendency seems to be more intelligence sharing, not less, said Mortera-Martinez. "UKIP’s argument on damaging the special relationship of the UK with the US is not likely to be accepted by other European actors, who value the UK’s leading role in the fight against international crime,” she said.

Earlier this year the President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, reiterated his desire for an EU army. The call was resolutely rejected in the UK. 

>> Read: Juncker: NATO is not enough, EU needs an army

  • Institutional reform

With renegotiation and reform of the EU being promoted by all parties, questions over what the EU is and now it goes about its business have become increasingly pressing.

The UK's future relationship with the EU with is much debated among all the parties, but equally pressing is the need to know what the EU will look like and how it will act in the coming years. 

Issues over democratic accountability and the desire to save money are both important issues in a period where trust in politicians is low and money is tight.


Powers should flow away from Brussels, not always to it.
National parliaments should be able to work together to block unwanted European legislation, the so called "red-card" system. 

Labour EU decision-making should be more open and institutional reforms should be implemented to build trust among its citizens.
The party backs the idea of a single seat for the European parliament. 

Doesn't believe any reforms would adequately protect the independence of Britain and its parliament. 

Liberal Democrats

Backs a single seat for the European Parliament.
The party would seek an audit of existing EU agencies to isolate areas for savings.

The Green Party

Wants increased transparency in the EU.
More power should be given to the European Parliament at the expense of the unelected Commission.
The European Parliament should adopt a single seat.

  • Security

Following the attack on Charlie Hebdo, and the ongoing turmoil in Ukraine, security has become an important election issue.

The Conservatives and UKIP want to be seen as tough on security and crime matters, but such a stance puts them at odds with their aversion to deeper EU integration. Parties which back closer integration need to be careful they are not viewed as handing over responsibility for Britain's security to foreign nationals. 


Police forces and justice systems should be unencumbered by unnecessary interference from European institutions.


The party is in favour of a proper framework for police forces to work together across borders and supports the European Arrest Warrant.
Ed Miliband has said leaving the EU would hinder the fight against terrorism. 

Liberal Democrats

Support the work of the new European Cyber Crime Centre. 
British police need European Union crime-fighting organisations such as Europol.


Does not want to see any more centralisation in this area.
The party believes any attempts to make the UK share intelligence would jeapordise the UK's unique relationship with the United States intelligence services.

The Green Party

Is not in favour of recent Passenger Name Record proposals. 
The party thinks the EU has a role in enabling the effective exchange of intelligence information but that this has to be within a clear oversight framework for both the national and EU level.

  • Migration

The issue of migration has increasingly become entwined with EU membership in the minds of voters.

The Conservative party pledged at the last election to reduce net migration to the tens of thousands, but failed to meet this target.

Already not a member of the Schengen zone, attempts to place limits on the free movement of people is unlikely to receive support from other EU members, so parties are searching for domestic policies that can help reduce immigration from within the EU. 


Stop in-work benefits and access to social housing for EU migrants for four years. 
Stop migrants claiming child benefit for dependents living outside the UK. 
Remove migrants from the UK after six months if they have not found work. 
Restrict the right of migrants to bring non-EU family members into the UK. 
Stop EU job seekers claiming Universal Credit (including unemployment benefit). 
Speed up deportation of convicted criminals. 
Longer reentry bans for beggars and fraudsters removed from the UK. 
Stop citizens from new EU entrants working in the UK until their economies have "converged more closely". 


Stop the payment of benefits to those not actually resident in this country and ensure that EU migrants cannot claim benefits when they first arrive in Britain.
Change deportation rules to make it easier to deport EU citizens who commit crimes.
Change employment rules to stop employers exploiting cheap migrant labour to undercut wages and jobs.

Liberal Democrats

Support the right to free movement across the European Union, which they class as a fundamental part of the EU single market.
However, the party supports an increase from 3 to 6 months during which time EU nationals job seeking in the UK would remain reliant on their domestic welfare benefits.


Wants to introduce an Australian-style point system for migrants from anywhere in the world, and end free movement of people into the UK from EU.

The Green Party

Believes freedom of movement is a fundamental right of all EU citizens.
Wants migrant entitlements to be clear and respected.
Additional support should be given to regions to manage any significant demographic change. 

  • Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP)

?The continuing negotiations between the EU and the US over the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership has sparked debate on all sides.

Some see secretive negotiations and an example of the EU over reaching. Others see it as a re-focusing on economic principles which lay at the heart of a union which began life as a common market.

>> Read: TTIP for dummies


Back TTIP negotiations as "an engine of growth" . 


Supports trade agreements in principle, but have concerns over the impact TTIP could have on public services. They have called for the UK's National Health Service to be exempt from any TTIP agreement. 

Liberal Democrats

Strongly support TTIP negotiations as well as trade negotiations with India and Latin America. 

UKIP Backs free trade, but feels TTIP will work disproportionately in French and German interests.
The Green Party:

Does not back TTIP. They say under its current guise too much power is given to corporations and it threatens public services, including the NHS.

  • Single market

The single market is a founding principle of the European Union. Many in the UK feel what the EU has moved away from its founding economic ideal. But, with financial services key to the UK economy and the country sitting outside the eurozone there are concerns the caucusing among eurozone members could lead to a two tierd single market with adverse affects on those outside the single currency. 

>> Watch: Cable: Success of the single market is the right direction for UK


Are in favour of the single market, but say they will continue to stand up for Britain's economic interest as reforms to financial services are made.


Supports deepening the European Single Market in services, the digital economy and energy.

Liberal Democrats

Believe that sustainable prosperity will always be at risk without a stable financial system and that the UK should show the way as a global leader in financial services – a position that can only be maintained while we remain part of the European Union.


Says EU legislation undermines the UK's financial services industry. 

The Green Party

Believes in strong local economies within the framework of the single market and want to break up the dominant corporations to enable SMEs to better compete.
The party calls for more robust regulation of financial services and a Europe wide financial transaction tax.

  • Energy Union

The EU Energy Union is part of the political response to the threat to EU gas supplies being cut off. The majority of Russian gas imports to the EU, about 30% of its annual needs, goes through Ukraine. In 2009, Russia turned off the taps, causing shortages in the EU. Pooling of the continent's energy resources should increase energy security among member states. 

>> Read: Leak names ACER as Energy Union supervisor

>> Read: Energy union aims for elusive 10% power grid interlinkage

>> Read: New South Stream will be Russia’s ‘route of friendship’


Are in favour of linking the UK to other countries so that energy companies can buy low-carbon electricity from wherever it’s cheapest.


Say increased energy union will ensure EU competition policies benefit consumers.


Wants decision on energy to be taken by the British government.

The Green Party

Supports energy union if it is based on the assumption of reducing consumption. 

  • Referendum

The UK last held a referendum about Europe in 1975, when the EU was focused on economic cooperation and called itself the European Economic Community (EEC).

Proposed votes on euro membership and the EU's Lisbon Treaty never materialised.

When David Cameron announced his support for an in/out referendum, it drew the other parties into a debate about whether, and in which circumstances, they would call a referendum if they ended up in power after May’s general election. 

>> Read: Cameron takes gamble with in/out EU referendum pledge

Conservatives If David Cameron is Prime Minister, there will be a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU by 2017, after a renegotiation of the details of membership.

Would hold and in/out referendum on EU membership, but only in the event of an additional transfer of powers from London to Brussels.

Liberal Democrats

Backs calls for an in/out referendum in the case of a significant transfer of powers from the UK to the EU. They would campaign to stay in the EU. 

UKIP Backs calls for a referendum.
The Green Party

Backs calls for a referendum, and would campaign to stay in and reform the EU.

  • 6 May 2010: General election returns second hung parliament since World War II
  • 11 May 2010: Coalition formed between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats
  • 23 Jan. 2013: Prime Minister David Cameron delivers his ‘Bloomberg speech’ laying out calls for EU reform and proposing a referendum on EU membership
  • 22 May 2014: UK Independence Party wins most UK seats in the European Parliament elections held in Britain
  • 7 May 2015: General election
  • 2017: Year proposed by the Conservatives for holding a referendum on Britain's EU membership

The Conservative Party

The Labour Party

The Liberal Democrats

UK Independence Party

The Green Party

Open Europe

The Centre for European Reform

British Future

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