David Cameron’s decision to promise to hold an in-out-referendum on Britain’s EU membership in 2017 should the Conservatives win the upcoming UK general election lies at the heart of all the critiques of the coalition government’s foreign policy. Ed Miliband argued at Chatham House on 24 April that, by doing so, Cameron has reduced British influence both in EU capitals and in Washington. David Cameron’s absence from the negotiations in Minsk in early February between Angela Merkel, François Hollande and Vladimir Putin over the Ukraine conflict is presented as proof positive of the UK’s growing isolation.
There is no doubt that David Cameron’s unprompted commitment in 2013 to hold an EU referendum has weakened the British voice in Brussels. He gives the impression that Britain permanently has 'one hand on the door' and that he is desperate to win back the Conservative Party’s most fervently anti-EU elements. The result is that EU leaders often shy away from engaging with their UK counterparts.
Two flawed assumptions have emerged from this critique. First, that it is in the power of a future British government to regain the same level of influence it enjoyed in Europe in the past. Second, that this will be easier if Labour leads the next government, because of Ed Miliband’s refusal to countenance a referendum unless the EU adopts a new treaty that significantly cedes more UK sovereignty to Brussels — a highly unlikely eventuality for at least the next five years.
The flaw in the first assumption is clear. The eurozone crisis has focused the attention of most EU leaders on the political compromises necessary to build a sustainable single currency. The eurozone, rather than the single market, is now the EU’s core. So long as British governments rule out joining the single currency or ceding sovereign power to its growing set of rules and institutions, the UK will be excluded from a large percentage of the EU’s work and negotiations, whether the next government is led by Ed Miliband or David Cameron. And it is inevitable that US administrations will see Berlin as their first port of call to discuss the future of Europe’s economy and the policies that flow from it, including sanctions and trade.
Second, the Labour Party’s position on an EU referendum has merely postponed the day of reckoning. Although a treaty change is unlikely in the next five years, it may emerge within the following British parliament, given the deepening levels of economic coordination euro members will need to undertake in order to ensure a sustainable future for the single currency. The problem is that the British context for an in-out referendum after 2020 will be as unpredictable as in 2017, when the leaders of all the main parties have at least said they would campaign to stay in the EU, providing the compromises that British officials have largely sketched out already could be cemented — from capping migrant benefits to cutting back on areas of past EU regulatory excess.
If the Labour Party takes power in 2015, Ed Miliband would come under immediate political pressure from their Conservative opponents and from the Eurosceptic press to demonstrate that his policy of being more open to new EU policy initiatives was not chipping away at UK sovereignty through the back door. Miliband could claim that he will abide by the European Union Act of 2011, which requires that a referendum be held on any amendment to the existing EU treaties that would transfer further competence to EU institutions. But, having in the end denied the British people the opportunity to vote on the Lisbon Treaty, the Labour Party would be vulnerable to accusations that it sought to use the Act to avoid the 'treaty' benchmark it has set itself for an in-out referendum.
If it were to win the election, Labour will also be forced to deliver the country another five years of economic austerity, leaving it in a much weaker position after 2020 from which to argue the EU case in the event of a referendum. For their part, if they lose power on 8 May, the Conservative Party will most likely tilt towards its activist, Eurosceptic grassroots and choose new leaders who are more open to a policy of Brexit and who would demand a set of concessions that may prove unacceptable to their EU counterparts.
The risks to Britain’s position in Europe and, therefore, to its international influence are inescapable in the next parliament, irrespective of who wins the election. Either David Cameron will undertake two years of intense negotiation and then seek a resolution in 2017 to the UK’s position in the EU through an in-out referendum. Or Miliband will seek to put off the fateful decision as far as possible into the future, while the Conservatives become more Eurosceptic. Either way, the UK is about to enter a period of great uncertainty about its European future.
This article was originally published by Politico.
To comment on this article, please contact Chatham House Feedback