Has a British exit (Brexit) from the European Union come a step closer as a result of the UK General Election? On Channel 4 News (10 May 2015), the Prime Minister, David Cameron, reiterated his commitment to an in/out EU referendum by 2017 but was vague on the result and said “he was confident he was going to get the right result.’. He stated that negotiations with EU Member States would begin as soon as possible. The election of a Conservative Government with an overall majority was unexpected and has greatly improved the PM’s standing within his own Party. The poor showing of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) has also strengthened the Prime Minister’s position, particularly if he eventually recommends staying in the EU. However, there a large number of Conservative MPs classed as Eurosceptic and some reports have put this number as high as 100 MPs in the present Parliamentary Party. The term Eurosceptic is a difficult one as it includes those genuinely seeking reform of the EU and those passionately opposed to the UK membership. One leading Eurosceptic, Mark Pritchard MP, has been quoted by the BBC as saying that there would be no pressure on the PM to rush in to negotiations and that time would be needed to get a ‘better deal for Britain.’ He told the BBC that ‘the Party will be 100% behind the PM as he goes off to Brussels to fight for Britain and indeed fight for an improved European Union.’ However, the veteran Eurosceptic MP, John Redwood, did list his demands in a television interview demanding the repatriation of banking regulation, oversight of Member States’ Annual Budgets and the ‘need to regain control of our borders.’ It may seem that the Prime Minister is in a stronger position now he is no longer in coalition with the Liberal Democrats. Many right-wing Conservatives were unhappy about the coalition and the way that Conservative policies were moderated – particularly the lack of a Coalition commitment to an in/out referendum. This restraint is no longer necessary but with a small majority and many Eurosceptics, David Cameron could still be in a worse position than John Major from 1992 until 1997 when Eurosceptics made the UK’s negotiating role in the Maastricht Treaty very difficult. Major had an overall majority of 21 while Cameron’s majority is only 12 and was frequently undermined by Europsceptics. He famously called them the ‘b*st*ards’ when he thought a TV microphone was turned off. What will the UK negotiating position with the EU be? This may become clear in the next few days and weeks. At the moment, this is difficult to work out. In a BBC interview at the beginning of the election campaign, he said that “the EU is trying to become too much of a state. It’s got too much power. We want to be in Europe for trade. We don’t want to be part of an ever closer Union.’ This might have been an exaggerated position as Cameron was looking over his shoulder and worried about UKIP but John Barron MP speaking on the Today Programme said that the negotiations should be about ‘trade and parliamentary sovereignty. Cameron’s Bloomberg speech in 2011 has been heralded as the UK position on the EU. It is still on the UK Government website but parts of the speech have been removed as ‘political comment’ rather than Government policy but it is worth reminding us of the problems of the EU in the previous Government’s eyes. It set out five principles:-
This last principle is an interesting one. With the economic problems of the Eurozone, the Eurozone countries want to discuss ways in which the currency area will work more effectively and renegotiations with a Member State outside the Eurozone could be seen as a distraction. However, Cameron could gain some credit with the non-Eurozone Member States if he raises issues of concern to them. The Bloomberg speech also set out a vision for Europe. Cameron stated ‘we believe in a flexible union of free Member States who share treaties and institutions and pursue together the ideal of cooperation. To represent and promote the values of European civilisation around the World. To advance our shared interests by using our collective power to open markets and to build a strong economic base across the whole of Europe.’ Later in the speech he calls the vision one of flexibility and cooperation. It seems a re-run of UK Government policy before the UK joined the then EEC when the preferred models from 1945 to 1973 were those of cooperation through the Council of Europe and the European Free Trade Area (EFTA) rather than the integrationist European Community and later European Union. A vision that has been rejected by many, if not most, EU Member States. Another policy area set to join the UK ‘negotiating position’ is that of freedom of movement of labour especially the benefit rights of EU migrants. So what of public opinion? After the performance of Opinion Polls in the General Election we need to be cautious An Opinion Poll carried out by YouGov at the end of February 2015 found 45% in favour of staying in the EU while 35% would vote to leave. In an Ipsos-Mori ‘Captains of Industry’ poll published on 4 February 2015 , only one per cent wanted a British exit. 45% of those polled were happy with the current relationship and 45% wanted a change relationship. The major benefit of the EU was free trade but 335 thought that freedom of movement of workers made recruitment easier.
European Policy Solutions will have frequent updates as the debate and negotiations unfold.
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