Following the Conservative party’s victory in last week’s UK general election, a referendum on EU membership before 2017 is now certain. According to Tom Parker, this knowledge, and the scale of the victory provides a certain level of certainty for business.
Tom Parker, managing director of Cambre-Associates, a European advocacy and communications firm.
David Cameron restated his commitment to an in/out EU referendum by 2017 within seconds of retaining his seat in the House of Commons. For many, in Brussels and beyond, this prospect sparked concern, but I think the unexpected clarity of the result has created a more positive context for the Brexit discussion.
Former premier Tony Blair warned in an election speech last month that the promise of a referendum on UK membership of the EU would inevitably lead to two years of instability that could jeopardise the European recovery, jobs and growth.
The surprise majority for David Cameron’s Conservative Party provides a platform to the British government to seek further EU reform. However, in doing so, Cameron will need to take into careful consideration the large presence and pro-EU instincts of the Scottish National Party (SNP), if he is not to trigger additional pressure on the integrity of the United Kingdom.
It must also be acknowledged that positive reform of the European Union is in fact already underway under the learned gaze of Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission, and the drive and energy of his polished partner in crime, Vice-President Frans Timmermans. Many of these reforms, including the better regulation agenda and being “big on big things and small on small things”, are hugely positive and should be recognized as beneficial for a leaner, more focused EU that is a motor for boosting Europe’s prospects.
What did we learn about the likely referendum result?
In reality, the UK election result tells us very little about the potential outcome of an EU referendum in 2017, for which the question has not yet been set. While some will focus on the rising share of the vote enjoyed by the Conservatives and UKIP, collectively they achieved less than the 50% of UK votes that would be the minimum requirement for an ‘out’ vote.
However, there are other big positives for pro-Europeans also.
The Conservative’s winning election campaign (just like the ‘Better Together’ campaign in the Scottish Independence referendum) focussed on the need for stability and economic prudence, showing that the UK electorate is prepared to let rationality rule emotion when it comes to their voting behaviours. UK and European stability and economy would be at risk in the event of Brexit.
Perhaps the greatest positive, however, is the strength of David Cameron’s mandate: he is the first prime minister of a Conservative majority government in nearly 20 years, and faces a fragmented and freshly decapitated opposition. The prospect of a minority Conservative government predicted by the exit polls led some commentators to speculate about a repeat of John Major’s travails at the hands of the demanding right wing of his party.
David Cameron will be under pressure from his right flank given the size of his majority, and without the excuse of the limiting influence of last term’s Liberal Democrat coalition partners. However, the unexpected strength of his mandate, combined with potential votes from other centre-right parties will give him more freedom to govern in his own style than could have been expected.
It was encouraging therefore to see him reiterate in his election victory speech his commitment to the mantle of one nation Conservatism – or the liberal centre ground.
This victory should empower and embolden David Cameron to make the positive case for EU membership that he instinctively supports. Given his now proven track record of electoral success, he would be an incredibly potent figurehead for a pro-EU campaign.