Most readers will know by now that the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, yesterday pledged an in-out referendum on the UK’s continued membership of the European Union, to be held in the event that the Conservatives win the next general election. Cameron says that he will try to negotiate better terms for UK membership and that he hopes that he’ll be able to recommend these to the British people in 2017 or thereabouts. I thought CT should have a post on this, but the remarks below are very much off-the-cuff and not written on the basis of any expertise re EU politics.
The first thing is that this is entirely driven by domestic politics and, indeed, largely by the internal politics of the Tory Party. Cameron is in a difficult place, he’ll almost certainly have to run the next general election on unfavourable constituency boundaries and against a difficult-to-catastrophic economic background. He’s also under some threat from rivals in the Tory party. This way, he can try to fight the election on something other than his economic record, he can distance the Tories from his pro-Europe coalition partners and he can (temporarily at least) neutralise the right-wing of his own party and possibly stem the drift of Tory voters to the UK Independence Party.
(Of course this won’t be the only referendum happening. Scotland has a plebiscite on independence coming up. If the SNP opt for independence within the EU and Little England (plus Wales) pulls out, the end result may be customs posts at Gretna Green. Nobody can see that as an attractive prospect (well, possibly Alec Salmond).)
It’s a very dangerous strategy. Cameron hasn’t said much about the changed terms he wants from the EU, but it is safe to say that he wants more market and less political and social integration and horrible stuff such more “flexible” labour markets (aka worse terms for workers). If anything, the uncertainty around the referendum will have a dampening effect on an economy that is already under water, making it easier for Labour to the extent to which low growth and jobs remain the real issues in the election. And he’s effectively given his right-wing permission to box him in in any negotiations with the EU by demanding more and more British opt-outs perhaps even around questions central to the EU treaties, such as the free movement of labour.
It also isn’t clear that other European leaders have much of an incentive to give Cameron anything. Rather, they can bolster their own nationalist and European credentials by banging an anti-British drum. Some of the more market-oriented European politicians (Merkel maybe? the Swedes?) might see an opportunity to push through some weakening of workers’ rights, so there’s some possibility of a deal/sop-to-Cameron there. But it all looks rather thin.
Ed Miliband hasn’t made the obvious political move to neutralise Cameron by matching his referendum pledge. It isn’t clear yet whether that’s a mistake. That may depend on the salience of the European issue compared to the economy in 2015. The Lib-Dems have looked dead ever since they went into coalition, but I suppose there’s a small chance that they might now pick up some of the residual Tory/business pro-Europe vote. But I’m not sure how big that is. Does this shoot UKIP’s fox? Again, I’m not sure. It seems to me that many of UKIP’s voters don’t actually care that much about the EU, but are obsessively against all of Cameron’s attempts to “detoxify” the Tory Party, and particularly against measures like gay marriage. So this may not keep them.
Still, from a narrowly tactical point of view, it is probably the right move from Cameron. He can’t win on the economy, so pick a fight with Johnny Foreigner and hope that the tabloids see him through.