EU referendum is going to happen, but that doesn’t mean Brexit is certain

After the election victory British PM David Cameron says he’ll stick to promise to hold EU referendum.

Questions:

1. Donald Tusk said that David Cameron must make case for EU membership. Is Cameron going to do that and under which circumstances?

2. In general, how much should be the EU worried about in-out EU referendum and possible Brexit?

Answers:

Anthony ZitoProfessor of European Public Policy, Co-director of the Jean Monnet Centre, Newcastle University

1.  Cameron is fundamentally part of the Eurosceptic tendency in the Conservatives that witnessed Thatcher’s downfall and  took particular negative lessons about the EU. But Cameron has a tendency to react to situations rather than have a proactive vision.  I think the likely mixed outcome from any attempt of the UK to renegotiate will still require Cameron to support the yes to Europe position to protect the position of big business etc., but the first two factors will render him less effective in leading a pro-UK campaign.

2. The fact remains that the anti-EU voice in both the political and media arenas is strong and clearly, simply stated (however accurate or inaccurate); that same clear, simple and strong pro- EU voice has largely been non-existent in these two arenas. The lack of pro-EU leadership in both of these arenas makes the possibility of the Brexit a very serious possibility.

Christopher Gifford, Head of Department of Behavioural and Social Sciences, University of Huddersfield

1. Cameron promised to campaign heart and soul for British membership in a referendum, however this is dependent on getting reform. We still don’t know precisely what the reform agenda will look like, different ideas have been floated at different times. But he has challenged some of the tenets of integration such as free movement and the Eurosceptics in the party will be expecting some serious outcomes from the reform process, which would fulfil the commitment to the repatriation of powers. Cameron will only therefore campaign for a reformed EU on British terms, at the moment the Eurosceptic narrative will stay the same that the EU does too much and is too interfering in nation-states. If Cameron fails to get the reforms that convince Eurosceptics, he will be in a difficult position. The issue is whether he would support an out vote, if he does not get reforms that he can sell to the party and the country.

2. The polls have been suggesting that the trend is towards greater support amongst the British people for staying in (of course polls can get in wrong as we have seen in the election). This is interesting as the rise of UKIP and the concerns about immigration from central and Eastern Europe are seemingly not translating into a general movement for exit. A lot of people are pragmatic about the EU and turned off by UKIP – this is particularly linked to age. Younger voters (under 45s) tend to be more pro-European. My feeling is that Cameron will get something, it won’t convince hardline Eurosceptics but will be sufficient to bring the Conservative leadership into a mainstream cross-party political consensus in favour of staying in and the majority of the British people will follow but there are lots of uncertainties.

Chad Martin, Assistant Professor of History, University of Indianapolis

1. My take is that both Tusk and Cameron are looking toward their future negotiations. Cameron has had to criticize the EU to placate the Eurosceptics in his own party and to answer the challenge of UKIP. Cameron’s position is that he will make an argument for staying in the EU *if* Britain wins concessions. The threat of the UK leaving is the leverage he wants to use to force these concessions, so regardless of what Tusk says Cameron isn’t going to “make the case” for staying until he has something he can call a victory in these re-negotiations.

The criticism of the EU in Britain is rooted in nationalism. There is the continual fear of supranational authority – being ruled from Brussels. There is the suspicion that Britain pays into the EU more than it gets out (British EU payments quadrupled between 2008 to 2013). Finally, there is also the question of uncontrolled immigration (especially from Eastern Europe) which was at the heart of UKIP’s campaign (Nigel Farage continually said that the only way to limit immigration was to leave the EU). In short, the Eurosceptics want to establish the primacy of British law, they do not want their payments to subsidize inefficiency in other member states, and they want controls over immigration.

2. I wouldn’t be too concerned at the moment. We’ve just finished an election cycle where, because of Farage and UKIP, the EU became a punching bag that everyone took turns beating upon. Cameron wants to exploit these ant-EU feelings in his re-negotiations. After all, if Tusk and other EU leaders don’t believe that the UK is serious about the possibility of leaving then what reason would they have to make concessions? So long as Cameron is able to claim some sort of success in these talks (even if the changes are relatively minor) he can then “make the case” that Tusk wants him to make before the referendum. The other major parties (other than UKIP) will support staying in, and the business community will do likewise.

Something else to consider. Last time I said that it was unlikely that there would be another referendum on Scottish independence anytime soon. The exception to this would be if it looks like the UK will leave the EU. In that case the SNP would almost certainly demand another independence referendum, and Cameron knows this. This is the Achilles’ heel of his negotiating position with the EU.

Simon UsherwoodAssociate Dean, Senior Lecturer, Department of Politics, University of Surrey

1. Cameron will certainly try to make the case, because he doesn’t want to leave. He’s trying to balance this with managing his party, so his rhetoric will have to reflect that.

2. A referendum is almost certain to happen now, but that doesn’t make Brexit more likely: most people aren’t very interested and will follow the cues of politicians and the media. Given that support for membership has been rising for past three years (look at YouGov website) that might less of an issue than one might imagine.

William PatersonHonorary Professor of German and European Politics, Aston University

1. Cameron will make the case but roughly a fifth of his parliamentary party and some prominent cabinet members ef Foreign Sec. Hammond want to leave. This could result in him asking for more than the EU can give.

2. EU should be worried. Their problem would be that concessions to Britain might be contagious.

Kristian SteinnesProfessor, Department of Historical Studies, Norwegian University of Science and Technology

1. The blunt answer is yes. He will make the case for EU membership. He knows perfectly well that the British economy, including the British financial sector (in particular the City) and also British influence in international matters are best served as full member of the EU. Thus, he has argued, and he will continue to argue, that Britain will be better of as full member of the EU. Yet he will have to give concessions to the Eurosceptic faction of his own party. Their ultimate objective is a Brexit. The likely outcome of this dilemma is to open negotiations with the EU in order to ‘repatriate powers’ from Brussels and London.

Seen from the EU leadership point of view – Tusk, Junker and others – the EU will find itself in a very difficult, and indeed, unpredictable situation, if Britain leaves the EU. Therefore, they will address the upcoming negotiations in a very positive way – as Junker and others have signalled. However, it will be difficult to venture into negotiations that imply Treaty revisions. Leaders in the EU are likely to give Britain just ‘enough’ to win an in-out referendum. What that means is hard to predict. But some powers will have to be ‘repatriated’.

2. That leads to your second question. My analysis is that the EU should be worried, not about the in-out referendum itself, which is a democratic right of every country/leader, but the possible consequences of a Brexit. If Britain should vote to leave, it has the potential to change the EU in different ways. First, it might imply that the EU centre of power will shift further east, from bigger to smaller states, from economically liberal and outward looking to more protectionist and inward-looking states. It could give Germany more influence – which was a main reason for Britain to apply for membership of the EEC for the first time back in 1961. Back then, they knew that the leader of the EEC (EU) would be the leader of Europe, and it was just a matter of time – British policy makers believed – before Germany would be the leader of the European Community. Therefore, Britain had to join. Also the economy would gain. Thus, there was both a political and an economic case for applying for membership and the EC in 1961 and in 1967. And the referendum in 1975 (the first and only referendum in Britain on EC membership), on whether to stay or leave the EC, Wilson (the Prime Minister at the time), won the referendum by a two third majority with a two third turn out.

Moreover, if the EU looses one of its two serious military powers, it could be regarded as yet another sign of Europe’s continued decline. Such geopolitical calculations are likely to shape the views of a Brexit – and also the EU and Europe – among powers like China, Russia and even the US.

A Brexit would be a big and unpredictable event in European history, and especially in the history of European integration. Taken the unpredictability into account, the EU will certainly make a case for Britain as a continued EU member, and it is also in this context Tusk’s comment of Cameron having to make the case for Europe should be read.

Robert Ackrill, Professor, Division of Economics, Nottingham Business School, Nottingham Trent University

In February 2013, in his ‘Bloomberg’ speech, Cameron made it clear that he would campaign for reform and then for remaining in the EU. What has never been specified is what is required by ‘reform’ – how much, of which policies, principles and/or processes. As a natural born cynic, my suspicion is that he is keeping this deliberately vague, in order not to tie his hands too much as a referendum date approaches.

Because it is early days, we need to determine a number of things before the picture will become clearer. These include, first, how euro-sceptic the new and expanded body of Conservative MPs is overall, and thus the challenges he will face within his own party. At least my own MP here has been re-elected. I am not a Conservative voter, but because my MP is Ken Clarke, a Conservative Party Grandee and one of the most prominent pro-Europeans in the party, I am happy to know there is one very high-profile, experienced and committed pro-European who has access to Cameron. I also find it amusing how damaging the euro-sceptics within the Conservative Party are to their leader and to their party. Cameron has struggled at times, and they were instrumental in the downfall of Margaret Thatcher.

Second, we do not yet know what implications the UKIP performance will have. Despite getting a lot more votes than previously, they only have one MP and Nigel Farage has resigned as party leader. That said, he has also issued a statement that indicates that if he gets support, he could return to the leadership. Since UKIP and Farage have been indistinguishable for so long, we do not really know who could take over, and whether they have the political nous that Farage does. One thing I will say about him is that whilst he likes to come across as a bloke who understands people, he is a very shrewd political operator. That and the fact that both he and I are married to immigrants!

Third, the Labour Party has argued against a referendum, arguing (correctly) that the uncertainty is damaging business. But with Ed Miliband having resigned, we do not know how a new leader will position the party on this.

Fourth, a similar argument can be applied to the Lib Dems with Clegg gone. They are the most pro-European of the three main parties – and no longer being in coalition may see them argue against a referendum – but this is just speculation, we really do not know. What we do know is that the Scottish National Party is very much pro-EU membership, and having won 56 of 59 seats in Scotland, they will be a strong voice for membership ‘north of the border’, as we say. I also suspect that there is quite a strong pro-EU sentiment in Wales. Northern Ireland is different again. I am not so sure what the view is there, but they do have a land border with another EU country, the Republic of Ireland, so their view is likely to be the most pragmatic of all.

A couple of other observations. First, for two or three years now, support for continuing membership has been growing. There is still quite a large ‘don’t know’ in opinion polls, but the trend is clear. Unfortunately, this election has also highlighted flaws in opinion polling!

Finally, there is the point that I keep reiterating – that a referendum asking a straight in/out question is a lie, because that is not the choice we face. If we vote to leave, the vital question is what arrangement will replace full membership? Each option has different implications, and none can really be understood without a PROPER understanding of what full membership gives the UK – an understanding that remains absent.

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