Why I would bet on the UK staying in Europe


Picture of Anand Menon
Anand Menon

Professor of European Politics and Foreign Affairs at King's College London

So it would appear that we will have a Conservative Government with a small majority in the House of Commons. A single party governing over a divided country means the first priority will be dealing with divisions within the United Kingdom – most notably the ‘Scottish question’. Yet of equal importance for this government will be the question of Europe.

David Cameron promised to hold a referendum on British membership of the EU before the end of 2017 if re-elected to Downing Street. Such is the desire to see this amongst his back benchers that Europe might be the issue that maintains discipline among them for other government business – at least until a referendum campaign begins.

Ironically, it may be that the result is the best that those concerned with seeing Britain continue as a member of the EU over the medium term could have hoped for. The UK is now certain to hold a referendum which it would not have had if Ed Miliband had triumphed. Yet, and perhaps more significantly, Cameron’s victory means that the conditions under which this referendum will be held will be more favourable than virtually any conceivable alternative.

For one thing, the ability of the Tory right to talk of a UKIP threat may now be limited; UKIP won only a single seat, which was not claimed by party leader Nigel Farage. More importantly, support for UKIP seems to have affected Labour as much as the Conservatives, notably the defeat inflicted on Ed Balls by the Conservatives, where UKIP polled around 7,000. One potential implication of this is that these backbenchers will find it much harder to bully the Prime Minister when he comes to drawing up the wishlist for his much-vaunted ‘re-negotiation’ of the terms of EU membership.

This in turn increases the likelihood that David Cameron will campaign in favour of continued membership following a re-negotiation that is more likely to succeed. Thus, both major national parties alongside, presumably, the SNP, will come out against ‘Brexit’.

Given this, and despite the suspicion with which the British press – particularly the tabloids – is viewed by Europhiles, it seems likely that only the Daily Express will openly campaign for ‘Brexit’. It will be interesting to see how the Murdoch press approaches the referendum campaign, but my bet would be that metaphors about ‘holding ones nose and voting to stay in’ will be thick on the ground.

Finally – and this would have been the case whatever government had been elected – the business community will come out overwhelmingly in favour of continued membership. However unpopular some in business – notably the banks – may be, their capacity to induce fear was on open display at the time of the Scottish independence referendum and will doubtless be at the fore again in a referendum on EU membership.

Support for British membership has been rising steadily over the last year or so, and this combination of political and broader contextual factors points to a victory for the anti-Brexit camp. For all the uncertainty the prospect of a referendum might seem to bring, there is room for some optimism for those keen to see the UK continue as an EU member.

Of course there are caveats. Perhaps the overwhelming lesson of last night for all those – particularly academics – interested in politics is that polls must be taken with a pinch of salt. And referenda are, of course, particularly unpredictable.

Events in Scotland point to the fact that one referendum may not be enough. For all the rhetoric of some Europhiles that a popular vote on EU membership might ‘lance the boil’ or ‘empty the poison from’ UK-EU relations, it is conceivable that one referendum will lead to calls for a second.

All this being said, it seems that we are finally at a point where the British can have a genuine debate on EU membership. The election campaign warns us that this campaign might not be an exercise in soaring rhetoric and clarity of vision, but that chance for a proper debate is welcome. Were I a betting man – which, after last night, I no longer am – I would place my stake on the public voting to remain in the club.

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