Britain, Europe and referendums

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Europe is the key to the future of the coalition government in Britain. Unless the current tendency to pander to the eurosceptic right is abandoned, the Liberal Democrats will be inevitably driven into a future coalition with a Labour Party that has declined to commit political suicide by heading too far to the left, writes Tom Spencer.

Tom Spencer is a visiting professor of public affairs at the universities of Chester and Brunel in Britain.

In May 2011 Wilfried Martens, president of the European People's Party and the Centre for European Studies, opened a CES Conference in London.  He was asked about the future of European integration.  He quoted George Herbert to the effect that “Storms make oaks take deeper roots.” 

I admired the elegance of the response, but then realised, that, for the first time in my adult life, I no longer believed with absolute certainty in the permanence of the European Institutions which had been created since 1948. 

A year of turbulence later, I conclude that the euro, and therefore the European Union as we have it, will survive.  While there will be many more anxious days for those in Brussels, I believe that the really acute problems will be faced by the British who are facing a long delayed moment of truth in their relations with the rest of Europe.

It is now dawning on the British that the outcome of Europe’s crisis is likely to be some very difficult choices for London. The key principal of British foreign policy is that ‘no Continental super-power should control the Belgian coast’. 

The threats from Louis XIV, Napoleon and Hitler have been seen off, but the British now face the possibility of a re-invigorated European Union, bent on closer political union, squatting on its doorstep.  In the past this has been dealt with by a series of complex opt-outs. There is a slow recognition that it may no longer be possible to preserve British influence by such means in an organisation to which we are obviously not fully committed.

This can be seen most clearly in the emerging nervousness in the City of London. Those with memories of the 1975 referendum will recall how support from the City was essential for the pro-European cause; just as those in the City begin to remember that London’s global influence cannot be maintained if the UK is only a second-class member of the European Union. 

For some time now both the prime minister and chancellor have been talking up the importance of a strengthened euro. This of course is entirely in line with the logic which says that sterling would not be taken into the euro as long as there was the oft-described design fault of a currency union without a fiscal union. 

No one seems to have given thought to the impact on public opinion of a British PM enthusiastically endorsing steps to bring about a strengthened euro.  Such a habit of recommending a strong European integration, but one not including the United Kingdom, is reminiscent of Churchill’s approach 60 years ago. 

Churchill argued then that there was no need for Britain to join in European unification as we “were positioned at the intersection of three circles of power and influence” – the Empire, the English-speaking world and Europe.  Sadly for those who would adopt such Churchillian tones today, the Empire is no more, the world speaks English, and the Americans are unlikely to welcome a weakening of British ties to Brussels as they tilt towards Asia. 

David Cameron in December 2011 was engaged in an attempt to balance his Liberal Democrat allies against the eurosceptic right-wing MPs in his own party.  Such balancing is entirely understandable.  His problem became more complex when the issue was related to his own political survival.  Such is the antagonism of the eurosceptic right that the prime minister may well have formed the opinion that he would not long survive as party leader in a purely conservative administration.   

He will know that no Conservative administration in the last 60 years has increased its majority in a subsequent election.  Once it became apparent that the coalition’s work in overcoming the financial disaster left by Labour was not going to be completed by 2015, the necessity of a second coalition with the Liberal Democrats became clear. 

On this basis Cameron’s entire time as prime minister could be spent in coalition.  Similar considerations apply to the room for manoeuvre available to George Osborne as his most natural successor. The most serious danger he faces would be a eurosceptic attack on his leadership in 2014, just ahead of the renewal of the coalition. 

It does not matter for these purposes whether the hand reaching for the “hollow crown” was that of Boris Johnson or Liam Fox.  What the prime minister needed therefore in December 2011 was a public demonstration that he was prepared to take a eurosceptic stance against Brussels, but preferably one which did no actual damage to Britain’s relationship with its continental partners. 

Those who were present in the European Council in the early hours of the morning of 9 December maintain that he overplayed his hand. He set in stone the image of a bombastic, self-obsessed nation unwilling to play a European role at a time when it would have been most helpful. British influence has from that date reached a very low ebb, even amongst those who have traditionally looked to Britain for leadership. 

How then is Britain likely to resolve the conundrum of its potential exclusion? In order to answer this question we need to consider the future of the current coalition, its likely successor and the vexed issue of referendums. The Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition is working well by any usual measure, despite recent arguments over reform of the House of Lords.  

Its impact on the future of British politics is becoming clear.  The Liberal Democrats have acquired precious governing credibility. On the whole their ministers have performed well. They will be able to position themselves at the next election as a restraining force on the Conservative Party, or potentially on the Labour Party. Therefore they will not do as badly as anticipated by some at the general election in 2015. 

I believe that Europe is the key to the future of the coalition and that unless the current tendency to pander to the eurosceptic right is abandoned, the Liberal Democrats will be inevitably driven into future coalition with a Labour Party that has declined to commit political suicide by heading off to the left. 

There is much talk of a threat from the UK Independence Party. It is being suggested that, having no serious competitors to their right, after the implosion of the British National Party, they could benefit from being a ’safe’ form of extremism. 

Despite the talents of UKIP’s leader, Nigel Farage, I do not see that they are by themselves an election-determining force, let alone one capable of deciding the outcome of a post-election referendum. They cannot break through in Westminster’s “first-pas- the-post” elections.  Boosting them now as a tactic to justify giving in to the eurosceptic right will only have the effect of making them more credible at the European elections, when the electoral system is sympathetic to them. 

Although UKIP takes votes from all parties, it is a particular problem for the Conservatives because of the number of leading figures in the constituencies who make no secret of their willingness to vote UKIP in European elections. 

It is reported that all three parties are contemplating offering post-election referendums. There are three possibilities – a vote following re-negotiation, a vote on the status quo or a vote on a fully-fledged membership for Britain. The most unlikely one would be to approve re-negotiated terms for British membership. This is unlikely for the most simple of reasons. None of our continental colleagues are keen to give the British yet more opt-outs at a time when we islanders are perceived as having been even more selfish and uncooperative than usual.  

A more likely referendum could of course be to confirm British membership on the current basis, including our exclusion from the new aspects of European integration implied in fiscal and banking union. It is difficult to see how enthusiasm could be raised for such an uninspiring prospect. It would run the serious risk of the British leaving “by accident” as the result of misunderstandings and misconceptions.  This only leaves the option of a referendum on fully fledged membership.

To restate the situation as it may exist by 2016.  Europe will have gone ahead to fiscal and banking union with a declared intention of further steps towards political union. For those Britons who wish their country to remain as a serious player in European affairs, I would advise them to recall the English proverb, dating back to the 17th century, to the effect that “One might as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb”. 

If we are to have an in/out referendum, and to put to rest for ever the assertion that Britain only voted to stay in a customs union in the 1975 referendum, then we might as well have a referendum that would lay the basis for Britain’s long-term influence in Europe, including a commitment to join the euro and new aspects of Union policy by an agreed date. 

To hold such a “fully fledged” referendum, would be to gamble that British attitudes to Europe have changed, even if the mentality of its political class remains stuck in the 1990s. Let us hope that those on both sides of the Channel recognise that the stakes are very high.

Subscribe to our newsletters