British FM Philip Hammond visits Slovakia today. Could you please shortly evaluate the position of the UK in the EU? Does Britain have at this moment some natural allies in the EU especially in terms of PM David Cameron’s efforts to reform the EU? Read few comments.
Benjamin Leruth, Teaching Fellow in French Politics and Society, Department of Politics, Languages & International Studies, University of Bath
David Cameron is facing a tough domestic situation, with the 2015 general election ahead and some Conservative defections to the UK Independence Party (UKIP). As such, he defends a more radical position on European integration (as illustrated by his recent challenge regarding the UK’s contribution to the EU budget), and it is likely to see him becoming even more radical over the next few months. The Conservative Party is more divided than ever, and the European issue is probably one of the most difficult issue to deal with at the moment. The party is composed of both Eurosceptic and Europhile members – as such, Cameron needs to conciliate divergent positions on Europe in order to avoid further defections. The 2015 election campaign will probably be one of the longest ones in the modern history of the UK.
At the European level, David Cameron seems quite isolated, despite Dutch PM Mark Rutte’s support on the EU budget issue. Such issue is considered as marginal by international observers as well as by other EU member states: it is a symbol used by Cameron to comply with the tense situation within his own political party as well as with public opinion. Cameron is likely to face strong opposition at the next European Council Summit. A compromise could be found, but in any case, David Cameron’s popularity at both domestic and international levels will be affected by his recent declarations.
Anthony Zito, Professor of European Public Policy, Co-director of the Jean Monnet Centre, Newcastle University, Newcastle University
The position of the UK with respect to the EU has been completely overtaken by the pending election. Current and previous opinion polls suggest that the EU has never been the primary focus for most of the voters, but Cameron and the Conservatives (but also the other parties) are fearful of losing ground to UKIP. This means that that the current government is going to take a robust position towards any issues involve sovereignty and British interests before the election. UK parties will be inclined to block and oppose EU issues, starting with the new budget contribution demands.
Although there are other countries which share similar concerns and objectives as the UK government (such as the Netherlands with respect to the recalculated member state contributions), none of them are going to side fully with the negativity coming out of the UK at the moment. Even more importantly, although there will be sympathetic countries on particular issues, the UK requires a full member state consensus to change major aspects of the EU, which is Cameron’s long-term aim. The current UK mood does not make that particularly likely.
Christopher Gifford, Head of Department of Behavioural and Social Sciences, University of Huddersfield
The UK’s relationship to the EU is increasingly fraught. The recent demands that the UK increases its budgetary contribution has provided Cameron an opportunity to play to the Eurosceptics He is taking on the mantle of Thatcher in adopting an aggressive and adversarial tone, which makes it harder to work within the system of bargains and compromises of the EU. He seems more and more prepared to challenge some of the central tenets of integration project in the context of the rise of the domestic Eurosceptic challenge. UKIP is seeing a dramatic surge and benefiting from Tory defections, hence Cameron has little choice but to go down a harder Eurosceptic route. At the same time he is not clearly spelling out what his red lines are, so is unlikely to satisfy the Eurosceptic fundamentalists. All this leaves the UK looking increasingly isolated. Although many member-states want to see reforms and are supportive of many UK proposals, the challenges to the integrationist project, such as free movement, are seeing a clear divide emerging between the UK and the rest, which is going to be very hard to bridge.
Jost-Henrik Morgenstern, Postgraduate Researcher, Loughborough University
The position of the UK in the EU appears to remain one of self-imposed precariousness. For a moment over the last weeks, positive polling data suggested that tide had turned a bit in terms of higher levels of support for EU membership. At the same time, several political moves underlined that the UK is still operating under different domestic constraints. Cameron’s reaction to the recalculation of British contributions to the EU budget was a show put on for a domestic audience. With his party under continuing pressure from UKIP, a tough stance on the payment was perceived as the only option. At least at the European level, that has backfired to a degree as other leaders with similar problems have reacted with a lot more measure. Domestically, it is again going to do little to placate UKIP supporters and eurosceptic Tories even in the short term.
While this posturing has shown that the UK is still able to frame the debate to a degree, whether this posturing is conducive to coalition building is more than questionable. Traditionally, the UK has had little problems building alliances at the EU level. It was always perceived more pragmatic in negotiations than the political postures adopted in the press and this may still prove to be the case here, too. When it comes to the UK’s attempts at promoting an EU reform, however, there’s still nothing concrete on the table on the basis of which ‘allies’ could be mobilised. The discussions have again been mainly domestic, i.e. how the UK could be able to restrict migration from the EU. This in itself is probably a good route to undermine any alliance with other conservative and business friendly governments (such as Poland’s).
Mike Mannin, Jean Monnet Chair in European Politics, University of Portsmouth
You are probably aware of the domestic situation in the UK at the moment with the UK Independence party (UKIP) Gaining notorious publicity and a growing proportion of the electoral vote. They achieved a recent victory in a seaside parliamentary constituency, Clacton and may well achieve another victory in another seaside area Rochester in the near future. Since the Conservatives are much likely to lose from this UK IP rise most of the governments rhetoric is directed towards sustaining the Conservative vote against a tide of Eurosceptic publicity for Ukip and their leader Nigel Farage. The outward hostility to the EU by Cameron and his Conservative colleagues is fuelled by this simple domestic fact.
Negativity towards the EU is coupled with negativity towards immigration from Eastern Europe. In fact it is immigration that probably is the more serious driver of UK IP success and the Conservatives reaction to it. The UK is in fact in the grips of a hysteria relating to “the other” portrayed as the Eastern European migrant labourer and the European bureaucrat. The unfortunate timing of the recent announcement by the commission that Britain has to pay into the EU Treasury coffers over €2 billion as an adjustment to recent economic performance has fed into this desperate negativity.
However it is important to remember these things. Number 1 that most pollsters suggest that when the general election comes along, UK IP will not achieve any electoral success because of the electoral system (1st past the post) because there will be a return to traditional partyloyalties and probably number 2, most importantly, that the electorate will judge’s success and failure of the coalition government on the basis of their economic performance as they have done for many years.
As for EU allies there would seem to be few at the moment for Cameront. Importantly, however dialogue channels are still maintained through the permanent representation of the UK that takes a much less political and pragmatic view of the U.K.’s position in the EU.
In the end, this appears probably the most negative environment of EU UK politics for some considerable time. But on the other hand, a public opinion poll last week gave the highest support for Britain remaining in the EU for a decade.! Perhaps the British public have a better sense of their best interests than the media, the right wing of the Conservative party, or indeed UK IP.