The UK election is too close to call. Are European leaders hoping to get Ed Miliband and avoid a Brexit referendum? Pawel Swidlicki from the think tank Open Europe argues that a Miliband premiership wouldn’t hold the answers to problems besetting the UK-EU relationship.
Pawel Swidlicki is a Policy Analyst at Open Europe, a euro-critical think tank with offices in London and Brussels.
Some politicians in Europe are hoping for a Miliband victory on the basis that under a Labour government, UK-EU relations would become more stable and the risk of Brexit diminished. However, while uncertainty over the UK’s membership would be avoided in the short term, in the absence of an in/out referendum in the next parliament, paradoxically, the prospect of Brexit could actually increase in the longer term for a number of reasons.
UK voters’ unease with EU membership would remain: The UK public’s unease with EU membership is genuine and will not disappear as long as the strategic challenges posed by EU membership remain. Further integration in the Eurozone, which could prompt negotiations over a new EU Treaty by 2019/20, and another European Parliament election, will all test the mettle of a Labour-led government. Public opinion on EU membership remains volatile, and any repeat of the furore caused by EU budget demands, or Jean-Claude Juncker’s appointment as Commission President, could push a majority of voters back into the ‘Out’ camp.
Lack of EU reform: Despite Labour having many sensible proposals for EU reform – indeed, on substance there is now a great deal of cross-party consensus – a Labour government is unlikely to make this a priority. Even if Labour were to achieve a degree of reform, its opposition to a referendum, and its unwillingness to contemplate an exit under any circumstances, means it lacks credibility with voters, making it harder to bank any achievements. Polling has repeatedly shown that support for membership on the UK’s current terms is precarious, with voters expressing a clear preference for EU reform. If this appears to be off the agenda, support for Brexit is likely to grow.
The Tories could adopt a more sceptical EU stance: It is possible that a defeated Conservative party could adopt a more sceptical position towards the EU, either by setting a much more ambitious threshold for a successful renegotiation, or even adopting a policy of outright withdrawal under new leadership. Much will hinge on who succeeds David Cameron. But as things stand, most of the plausible candidates have been more willing to contemplate Brexit than he has been, and they would also have to win the support of a party membership which is increasingly impatient with the status quo. Compared to UKIP, the Tories carry considerable political and intellectual weight, and if it were to come out in favour of leaving the EU, this could have a decisive impact on public opinion. Under a scenario of a weak Labour government and a resurgent, more sceptical Conservatives, any EU-related vote in the Commons would be hugely difficult and unpleasant.
The potential rise of English nationalism: If Labour is forced to govern with the support of the SNP, such a government would face questions over its democratic mandate, above all in England. This could stir English nationalism with unpredictable consequences, both for the future of the UK, but also for any future EU referendum.
In summary, the EU will not cease to be an issue in UK politics, an EU referendum could still only be one election away, and without reform under the next government, such an EU referendum would be far more likely to result in Brexit.