The United Kingdom joined what was then the European Economic Community in January 1973. In June 1975 the British people voted in a referendum, by two to one, to stay in the community. The continued relationship with Europe since then has seen prime ministers fall and governments lose elections.
The first casualty of the relationship can be considered the Labour government of Jim Callaghan. When Conservative prime minister Edward Heath announced that membership to the EEC would see standards of living rise, he inadvertently gave Callaghan a promise the Labour leader could not live up to, especially given the strike-riven years of the late 1970s that Callaghan presided over. Dissatisfaction with Europe was just one of the reasons why a discontented UK electorate swept the Conservative Margaret Thatcher to power in 1979.
It was the UK’s first female prime minister’s no-nonsense approach to Europe that ultimately led to her familiar moniker of ‘The Iron Lady’. After just a few months in office she sowed the seeds for what would become the UK’s rebate, angering leaders across Europe. In the 1979 Dublin Summit, she famously stated “We are not asking the Community or anyone else for money. We are simply asking to have our own money back”. At Fontainebleu five years later, Thatcher got her rebate, slashing the UK’s net contribution by around 66%.
Recrimination and resignation
By the end of the 1980s, Thatcher’s approach to Europe, alongside other national issues, were beginning to see her power within her own party wane, most notably with her opposition to what she saw as increasing federalism, as well as the Exchange Rate Mechanism that set Europe on the path to the euro. Thatcher was fierce in her condemnation, writ large by her famous Bruges speech, a position that saw her at odds with several senior members of her own cabinet, leading to recrimination and resignation, and ultimately to her own demise.
The episode hastened her departure and highlighted the deep rift regarding Europe within the UK’s ruling party. Thatcher’s successor, John Major, took a more conciliatory tone with Europe and signed the Maastricht Treaty in 1992, but still argued he had achieved victory for a UK that he said “remained at the heart of Europe” despite the opt-outs on the social chapter and the single currency.
The opt-outs were insufficient for the eurosceptic wing of the Conservatives which, with a majority of just 18 in the House of Commons, could afford very little in the way of party rebellion. Ratification of Maastricht was defeated by Conservative rebels in July 1993, prompting Major to call another vote the following day, which he described as a vote of confidence on his leadership.
He won, but Major was severely weakened, and for the remaining four years of his administration the Conservative Party acted more like a coalition government with regard to Europe, thus paving the way for Tony Blair’s New Labour era in the landslide general election of 1997.
Despite the UK populace appearing increasingly eurosceptic, with rows over British beef and the creation of the anti-European Referendum Party adding to the discontent, the more europhile administration of Blair triumphed primarily as a result of Major’s key weakness to control the sceptics in his own party.
The subsequent 13 years of Labour governance proved to be a difficult balancing act, firstly for Blair, and then his successor Gordon Brown, who had been Chancellor of the Exchequer for ten years before taking over the mantle of prime minister. Starting out with a cautious proposal to align the UK economy with that of the EU, Blair quietly dropped his support for the single currency as difficulties in the original eurozone surfaced.
Blair’s ‘eurolite’ approach; red lines upon which he would not waver coupled with negotiating a smaller UK rebate, sought to dampen the growing euroscepticism in the country. For ordinary people a growing sense of Brussels diktat, and the rise of the idea of a referendum on membership, further highlighted divisions between the British and the EU.
Indeed, such was the negativity surrounding the issue that, unlike the other EU member state leaders, Brown signed the Lisbon Treaty with a minimum of fanfare, in part because the Labour Party manifesto for the 2005 general election promised a referendum on the EU Constitution. Brown subsequently argued that the new treaty, following an initial no vote in Ireland, had changed so much that it no longer required a public ratification.
The demand for such a vote strengthened as a result, and led to all three major parties promising a referendum on the UK’s relationship with the EU in the 2010 general election. However, in returning its first coalition government in 70 years, the new alliance of Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats led to the creation of the Coalition Agreement, which carried no provision for the referendum both parties had previously promised.
Democracy and fairness
It is now almost 40 years since the UK last had a referendum on UK membership of the EU. No-one under the age of 57 has had an opportunity to voice their opinion on whether that membership should remain. A relationship always difficult, the growing sense of a situation lacking in democracy and fairness, from unelected commissioners to an increasingly collective foreign policy, the UK electorate is demanding its say. The likely outcome of an In/Out vote tomorrow would be for UK withdrawal. It is against this background that the Conservatives, Labour and even the most europhile party of the Liberal Democrats must conduct their future policy, and seek to steer a road that balances indignation and distrust with remaining a part of the world’s largest economy.
The Conservative prime minister faces the most difficult challenge of all the UK leaders since the UK joined the EEC. Past history shows the Europe question can topple Conservative governments, but the addition of the Liberal Democrats as the junior coalition partner further complicates matters. Euro discontent on the Conservative backbenches is never far from the surface and anger at perceived excessive Liberal Democrat influence on policy has led to Cameron pursuing hitherto unimagined approaches to Europe.
He caused consternation in Brussels, and across the continent, when he effectively vetoed an EU-wide treaty change in December 2011 designed to ease the eurozone crisis. The accord that followed was signed by all member states except the UK. Following German proposals on a financial transaction tax as one way to ease pressure on the embattled euro, Cameron was once again combative in pointing out that the City of London would be adversely affected and thus would disproportionately contribute to alleviating a crisis of which the UK was not part.
But the biggest statement of intent to come from Cameron, and one aimed at quieting the rebels within in his own party has been the announcement, in January 2013, that he will hold an In/Out referendum if the Conservative Party win an outright majority in 2015’s general election.
Subsequently, Cameron clarified that he himself will target EU reform and, if sufficiently successful, will campaign for the UK to remain part of the Union. Initial shock at the announcement has given way to a mixture of private anger and public understanding in the capitals of Europe. Should Cameron win outright in 2015, it is a very real possibility that the UK will vote ‘No’ in 2017, albeit by a much reduced margin than might occur should a vote be held tomorrow.
The Labour leader has thus far remained relatively quiet on the issue of Europe. Although his personal ratings are low, Labour is likely to benefit from left-leaning Liberal Democrat defectors appalled to see their leadership align with the centre-right Conservatives in coalition. The influx of anticipated Lib Dem votes, however, might also be tempered by the emergence of the UK Independence Party, particularly in local and European elections. Regularly seen as taking votes from the Conservatives, UKIP are increasingly making the case that it is disaffected Labour voters that are joining their unwavering call for a referendum on Europe.
For his part, Miliband has rowed back from the referenda promised firstly by Tony Blair, and then by Gordon Brown, by stating his preference to only hold a referendum if there was a proposal to transfer further powers from London to Brussels. The Labour leader has therefore made it highly unlikely there will be a referendum in the next parliament should he be at the helm. Adding the caveat however has led to criticism from all corners of the political spectrum.
The leader’s debate
Recent weeks have seen renewed focus on the Europe question, specifically because of two live, televised debates on the issue. The Deputy Prime Minister, Liberal Democrat Nick Clegg challenged the vocal UKIP leader Nigel Farage to the debates in what was billed as the most significant public debate the UK has seen on the Europe question since joining the EEC 40 years ago.
It was perhaps a surprising move on the part of Clegg to stake his future policy, and career, on support for the EU. But then the Lib Dem leader has seen catastrophic poll ratings ever since sanctioning a coalition government with the Conservatives. Challenging Farage provided Clegg with an opportunity to make the case for the EU at a time when the other two major parties are seen to regularly question the suitability of Brussels.
Indeed one of the key avenues of attack used by Clegg was to accuse Farage of “admiring” and of giving tacit support to Russian President Vladimir Putin over the Crimean crisis. Farage accused the EU of having “blood on its hands” over the expansionist policy that he argued Brussels had undertaken to woo Ukraine westwards. Russia’s intervention, and the subsequent unrest, he said, led to Ukrainians toppling a “democratically elected leader”, with the tacit agreement of the EU. However Putin’s reaction, and the use of his UN veto over Syria, Farage observed, had led to the EU being thwarted twice in its aims.
Cleggs’ challenge was calculated to highlight the more extreme side of Farage and UKIP ahead of European elections that are expected to see the anti-European party do well.
It did not turn out like that. Passionate as Clegg was in his support and admiration for the EU’s inclusive approach, the importance of the Union to British jobs, its economy and its standing in the world, it was Farage who ‘won’ both debates according to polls announced immediately afterwards. The first debate saw 57% think the UKIP leader did better to 36% for Clegg, but the second debate returned figures of 69% Farage to Clegg’s 31%.
In any language that would appear to signal a clear intent of the polled viewers that at least the idea of a UK outside the EU is one garnering serious support. What is perhaps more damning is the fact that Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, and leader of a party making up the coalition government, apparently lost so convincingly to Nigel Farage, leader of a party that does not have a single MP in Westminster
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