Monday, 25 May 2015

UK referendum and the backfiring of Cameron's democracy threat

The British government confirmed it will pass an early law to hold an in/out referendum on European Union membership by the end of 2017.

Queen Elizabeth, speaking at the House of Lords, opened parliament with a speech outlining the United Kingdom’s plans for membership in the supranational organisation.

“My government will renegotiate the United Kingdom's relationship with the European Union and pursue reform of the European Union for the benefit of all member states,” the queen says.

Prime Minister David Cameron – who was re-elected May 7 – has been orchestrating the national conversation about EU membership for two years. This new law could bring a referendum to Britain perhaps as early as 2016. Mr Cameron is now facing a situation he didn’t exactly plan for.

The British leader doesn’t necessarily want to leave the organisation, and opinion polls currently show the British populace also wishes to remain in the EU. Mr Cameron knows a departure would hurt Britain both economically and strategically, but his plan hoped to avoid this.

Originally, the referendum was a political counter to rising eurosceptic sentiments in the UK which was being unfairly conflated with the immigration issue. The referendum was linked with the larger renegotiation of Britain’s relationship with the EU. That renegotiation is about to start, as timing would have it.

In this light, including the UK public in the in/out decision ticked two boxes for Mr Cameron. It would quieten pressure from the right of his own party and gain a measure of important leverage in the upcoming renegotiations with Europe.

The Europeans were so far reacting as expected. Brussels knows a British departure is possible if concessions weren’t made on greater opt-out clauses for the UK and increased protection from immigration flows, for instance. So any uncertainty threat could only help the British renegotiating stance.

But while this was the early plan, the Conservatives now find themselves with a majority in parliament and the wider UK political dynamics shifting around the ruling party. On the one hand, the Liberal Democrats failed miserably in the elections. And although the eurosceptic party UKIP didn’t gain significant representation in parliament, its influence grew markedly, indicating widespread desire for a British exit probably isn’t going away anytime soon.

These British eurosceptics can now use a new-found power base to make more stringent demands for the larger EU renegotiation – a tactic made far simpler now the Liberal Democrats are no longer around to balance out eurosceptics inside Mr Cameron’s own party.

So Mr Cameron watches as his options shrink. He is committed to a referendum and can’t backtrack now. It would only embolden the eurosceptics, undermining his negotiating position with Europe. But he can’t be sure a referendum will deliver the result of continued EU membership.

All of which lead to Mr Cameron announcing confidently today that the referendum will go ahead. He’ll now want to speed up the process to capitalise on a few advantages, many of which can’t exist forever.

The election will eventually fade for the public, so moving quickly to leverage the British people’s current support for both the Conservatives and EU membership will be critical.

And there’s also grumblings emerging from the international business community which use the UK as a base to launch into Europe. Many of those corporations may decide to postpone further investment into Britain until the renegotiation issue is complete. That won’t be good for anybody.

For these reasons, Mr Cameron is betting a fast referendum process is more likely to gain him an “in” vote. He knows the British public often changes its mind, and as the eurosceptics gain in power, “out” thoughts are bound to creep into the wider consciousness.

Every UK generation redefines its relationship with Europe. The EU was meant to galvanise the continent but a weak European centre, financial pressures, immigration controversies and hostile politics have supplied this generation with a chance to once again ask the Europe question.

One thing’s for sure: using the threat of democratic process as a political weapon doesn’t always work out in your favour. Mr Cameron right now might be wishing he wasn’t so forceful on the referendum.

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