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Cameron’s struggle on Europe

Cameron’s struggle on Europe

Pollsters’ view on Brexit discredited 

by Denis MacShane

Mon 11 May 2015

The forthcoming campaign towards a referendum on possible British departure from the European Union will represent one of Britain’s most difficult two year periods in the post-war era.

The plebiscite, a near-certainty in 2017 following the victory of Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservatives in last Thursday’s election, is much more important than the UK’s referendum in 1975 on whether to stay in the European Economic Community Britain joined two years earlier. It eclipses previous votes in other countries on whether  to back new European treaties or to join the European single currency. 

Large sections of the political and business leadership and the press claim there is so much wrong with the EU that only a major renegotiation of the UK’s status can put it right.

Cameron’s negotiating demands will be of particular importance. There will be a long list. It will probably include an end to free cross-border movement of citizens, withdrawal from European social legislation applying to UK firms, and removal of some vague-sounding words about  ‘ever closer union of peoples’ that have been in the European treaties since 1957.

Other items seem likely to be the right of the UK parliament to reject EU rules or policies it does not like, and special protection for the City so the UK financial industry can opt out of EU regulations.  Such ideas are backed by senior Conservatives like Sir John Major, the former prime minister, and Boris Johnson, the mayor of London, as well as most Tory MPs.

Sensible pro-Europeans like Charles Grant of the Centre for European Reform and Mark Leonard of the European Council on Foreign Relations have set out more modest demands which they believe the EU can concede and Cameron should seek to obtain.

The problem for such think-tank recommendations is that the EU question is about raw political emotion not rational balance sheet formulae. Cameron won last Thursday’s victory partly by appealing to English nationalism, including adopting demands for an EU plebiscite made originally by the anti-European Ukip party. The Conservatives targeted with precision campaigning seats in England held by the pro-European Liberal Democrats, Cameron’s coalition partners since 2010 in what was always a marriage of convenience that has now been spectacularly dissolved.

The victory was more comprehensive than anyone could have anticipated, given pre-election polls. Yet Cameron has a smaller majority than achieved in 1992 by Major, who subsequently faced considerable pressure from anti-EU backbenchers. Cameron’s party is full of MPs who were selected as candidates by promising local associations they would oppose the EU.

Many pro-Europeans believe that the British would never vote to quit Europe. This is misguided. Opinion polls to that effect are quoted. But Thursday’s outcome has discredited the pollsters. The idea that the referendum is unlosable needs revision.

Jean-Claude Juncker, the Commission president, has made clear he wants to help Britain stay in the EU, but not at any price. Manfred Weber, an influential pro-European politician from Germany’s Christian Social Union, says, ‘Cameron has to put his demands on the table. But the EU freedoms are not negotiable.’

Juncker, too, insists on the sanctity of EU rules on freedom of movement. At a meeting in the Bundestag on Friday, Jens Zimmerman, the Social Democrat deputy chair of the Anglo-German parliamentary committee, said there was no question of ‘meeting impossible demands from David Cameron’.

A smart move by Cameron would be to lead the Conservative Party back into the European People’s party in the European parliament, showing he wanted to rejoin the mainstream European centre-right. But this would produce a revolt among Tory MEPs and cause general Conservative upheaval, so it probably won’t happen.

One major question is whether the European Commission or Council does the negotiations with Cameron. Every proposal and any final deal will have to be accepted by the other 27 member states, many with rules about referendums regarding EU changes. The European parliament will want to have its say. Martin Schulz, its plain-spoken president, will probably not accept any weakening of European social legislation. The same is true of left-wing leaders like François Hollande in France or Matteo Renzi in Italy.

Cameron, in the aftermath of an unexpected victory, is on the crest of a wave. But no one should be fooled into thinking that his European task will be anything but a bitter struggle on several fronts.

Denis MacShane, a former UK Minister for Europe and author of Brexit: How Britain will leave Europe, is a member of the OMFIF Advisory Board.

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