The UK is “fading into the European background”, warned former European Trade Commissioner and Labour peer Lord Mandelson in July. In an interview with Euractiv, he argued that the UK government was trapped between eurosceptics and anti-Europeans and was in danger of being forgotten by other EU member states.
It’s not just Lord Mandelson that’s worried – former Prime Minister Tony Blair has also voiced concern that Britain could leave the EU. In an interview with Germany’s Die Ziet newspaper, Mr Blair said the UK’s exit from the Union could be sparked by too much power being transferred to Brussels.
The Office for National Statistics (ONS) recently revealed that Britain now exports more goods to countries outside the EU than to the countries inside it, as businesses increasingly look to the rapidly-growing economies of Asia and Latin America. The news is likely to bolster British eurosceptics who argue that leaving the EU won’t damage international trade.
So as Europe’s economic woes rumble on, is a referendum on Britain’s EU membership becoming a reality?
Despite the frequent media hysteria about a possible referendum, the Coalition Agreement makes no reference or commitment to hold a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU.
What the Agreement does say is that the government supports further EU enlargement and “is a positive participant in the European Union, playing a strong and positive role with our partners.” Which of course, all sounds very…positive.
Continuing, the Agreement affirms that “no further powers should be transferred to Brussels without a referendum…this approach strikes the right balance between constructive engagement with the EU to deal with the issues that affect us all, and protecting our national sovereignty.” A firmer tone perhaps, but still no references to a referendum on membership.
Writing in the Sunday Telegraph in July, Prime Minister David Cameron said he was prepared to consider a referendum on the UK’s EU relationship, but only when “the time is right.”
Mr Cameron, who told the newspaper that leaving the EU is not in Britain’s best interests, has the rather challenging task of pleasing hardliners on the Conservative Right who want to leave the Union whilst simultaneously appeasing the party’s Coalition partners, the pro-European Liberal Democrats.
MPs will return to Westminster tomorrow after the long summer recess, and the Prime Minister is likely to hit the ground running by announcing his autumn reshuffle, perhaps as early as next week. Speculation over the reshuffle has swirled around for months, but Conservative Europe Minister David Lidington has been rumoured to lose his job.
Sources have claimed that David Cameron has come under pressure from Right-wingers in the party who want to see the Minister replaced with an MP who would take a harder line on Europe. Mr Lidington recently told France’s Le Monde that the UK was a “convinced European”, whose best interests were to stay inside the EU and there was “no question” of an exit any time soon.
For now, it remains unlikely that there will be a referendum, especially while the Conservatives govern in coalition with the Lib Dems. It’s possible that the tone of Britain’s relationship with the EU could change, for example if the “referendum lock” does have to be used then this could trigger a crisis if and when a new treaty is needed. Mr Cameron already prompted a frosty response from his European counterparts when he vetoed the new fiscal treaty last December.
However, in some ways nothing will change and the same old familiar story will continue to play out, with eurosceptic MPs calling for withdrawal from the EU or a “repatriation of powers”. But the reality remains that it really is in the UK’s best interests to stay inside the Union, and for that reason holding a referendum on EU membership is too riskier a gamble for the government to take.
Referendums are expensive and time-consuming – under George Osborne’s Chancellorship the UK economy continues to struggle and GDP shrank 0.5 per cent between April and June this year. If the government decided to spend millions of pounds on what is arguably a vanity project, the decision could spectacularly backfire on an already unpopular administration.
This post was published by The New Federalist on 2 September 2012.