With opinion polls for Britain’s upcoming general election balancing on a knife edge, the UK’s future relationship with the EU has never been so precarious.
Widely regarded as the most contentious issue of this election, British membership of the EU has dominated headlines and been a key focus for party manifestos. But what are the possible outcomes of 7 May and the five years that follow? Not only does the legal future of the UK-EU link hang in the balance, but the election itself continues to alter the relationship.
Growing Euroscepticism within the UK has fuelled demands for a referendum, though it is not just potential legal changes that threaten the UK-EU relationship: the importance of the European Question itself in this election threatens to destabilise links.
The parties and their promises: a brief overview
Currently leading in the opinion polls with 34%, the Conservatives claim to have made an “in/out” referendum one of their top priorities, aiming to hold the vote by 2017. They also assert that they will “reform” the EU, which in its current state is "too big, too bossy and too bureaucratic”. This largely comes about as a result of the growing popularity of UKIP, to whom the Conservatives have lost an estimated 5% of their 2010 voters.
UKIP have gained widespread support since the last election. Gaining 3.1% in 2010, Farage’s party have risen to prominence are polling in third place with 13%. Marketing themselves as an anti-EU party, their main policy is British independence, as well as claiming that they will negotiate a post-Brexit trade deal with the EU.
Labour, conversely, do not propose a membership referendum. Ranking second in the opinion polls with 33%, they stress the importance of the EU in dealing with non-European threats and claim that they will “continue to advocate an EU which looks outward to promote stability, peace and prosperity on its borders”.
Prospects for coalition, formal or informal
With no clear majority in sight and major parties vehemently denying any plans for coalition. A minority government reinforced by informal support from other parties therefore looks likely.
The option that looks most possible from current polls, then, is that of a minority Conservative government underpinned by support from smaller parties in favour of a referendum. UKIP maintains that there is a prospect of “conversation” between the two parties.
Also possible but less likely is a minority Labour government supported by those who share its pro-EU views, such as the SNP and Liberal Democrats. Again, Miliband has ruled out a formal agreement between his party and one with similar views, saying that there would be “no deal, no coalition, no pact”.
A referendum, therefore, remains uncertain.
What would this mean for Britain’s relationship with the EU?
The most obvious way in which this election could affect Britain’s relationship with the EU is if it results in a referendum. This time, the European Question is core and this election may well lead to the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. What is certain, on the other hand, is the damaging effect that Britain’s indecision is having on the UK-EU relationship.
While the European Question is debated across dining tables and Cabinet meetings in Britain, the rest of Europe remains unsure as to what is coming next. If prolonged, this uncertainty may lead to a lack of investment from other European firms who are unsure if Britain will still be European next year, let alone in five years. In this sense, just by contemplating whether or not to exit, Britain is causing economic insecurity and forgoing valuable European investment.
Secondly, UK parties’ pledges for 7 May and the next government are causing political tension within the EU. Pandering to the wishes of a dissatisfied public, both pro and anti-referendum parties are promising to secure British interests on the European stage. France and Germany in particular have warned against Britain attempting to create its own rules and increase its power within the EU, and for the UK to continue to threaten to do so creates friction as more and more if its interests conflict with those of its neighbours.
Finally, regardless of whether the general election results in a referendum or what the result of that may be, the mere fact that the EU is being presented in British politics as the cause of domestic problems damages the UK’s relationship with other members, as well as the relationship between British public and the EU. This has already led to a degree of social separation, since British people feel distanced from “Europe”. The benefits of many core values of Europe – community, stability, mobility, etc. – have therefore been diminished in Britain by the mere idea of the EU as the enemy. This may well lead to a legal separation also, if anti-Europe sentiments maintain their current popularity in the event of a referendum.
The idea of the EU as a problem for Britain is therefore a self-fulfilling prophecy, and the negative press created by the election has served to perpetuate this view.
Irrespective of whether the new government decides to host a referendum regarding UK-EU membership, the general election has hugely damaged the relationship between Britain and the European Union, and for the next five years this will need to be addressed to prevent further deterioration.