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Brexit looms large in the UK General Election

Submitted by on 22 Apr 2015 – 11:46

With two weeks until UK voters head to the polls in the General Election, Susi Dennison from the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) assesses the importance of anti-EU sentiment in the UK. 


What does the UK really want from the EU? What does the UK really get from being a member state of the EU? Although we are unlikely to find real answers to these questions in the run up to the elections on May 7th, unfortunately, once they have passed, it may be too late to do so. This year’s general election could not be more critical for the UK’s relationship with the European Union. As Sky News’ interviews with FTSE 100 companies have shown, leading businesses in the UK recognise this and are suggesting that if the results of the May polls trigger a timetable on a referendum on UK membership of the EU, they will take that as the fire of a starter gun to begin issuing warnings of the consequences of Brexit from their perspective.

The UK’s future in the EU is unlikely to be a decisive issue which sends voters to the polling stations in droves this May – too much is at stake domestically for this to be an election about Europe, even though it will have such a strong bearing on Britain’s relationship with Europe. Though we are at a crucial juncture in the UK’s more than forty year history with what is now the EU, and rhetoric on Brexit is at fever pitch, it is far from clear that if it came to the crunch, UK voters would favour severing ties with the EU. However, as Robert Kagan argued in the Financial Times last week, there is no ‘chill up your spine’ loyalty to the European project – among UK voters or indeed across the union – and therefore it continues to be a relatively marginal question in UK election debate, too often conflated with (or scapegoated for) regulation on business, pressure on public services, or immigration. This is UKIP’s real triumph in the run up to the 2015 elections: to have steered us away from an actual debate on whether we want to be in the EU, instead running the question together with issues which arouse far more emotion in voters.

 “…our capacities in the face of these common challenges would be diminished if we were not part of the collective.”

Ironically, the rise of anti-EU sentiment in the UK means that we have more rather than less in common with our continental allies. Concerns about the impact of austerity policies and immigration have fuelled a rise of the far right, of anti EU, and of anti-establishment parties across the EU. The surge in support for these groups at the European Parliament elections last May, the lurch towards ‘illiberal democracy’ in Victor Orban’s Hungary, the growing strength of Podemos in Spain, and the coming to power of Syriza in Greece all testify to this phenomenon in different ways, and contribute to a multifarious European political picture, of which the UK discussion on Brexit is an influential part. Meanwhile, at a working level, the UK’s relationship with the EU continues to function surprisingly well, particularly in areas where the question of what value EU membership adds to the UK are hard to dispute. Take for instance, foreign affairs. In the last year, Europe has found itself surrounded by crises. To the east, Russia annexed Crimea and war broke out in eastern Ukraine. To the south, the self- proclaimed Islamic State has made significant advances across Syria and northern Iraq. Civil war continued in Syria, generating a refugee crisis on a horrifying scale, and transition processes in Libya and Yemen have almost completely collapsed. The terrorist attacks in Paris and Copenhagen at the beginning of this year have reminded us of the interplay between our approach to instability in our neighbourhood, and security challenges at home.

Photo: Jennifer Jane Mills, Flickr

Photo: Jennifer Jane Mills, Flickr

Faced with these fearsome challenges, the ECFR 2015 Foreign Policy Scorecard shows that British diplomats have in fact chosen to continue engaging constructively with EU colleagues in tackling these issues – for example supporting EU sanctions on Russia, participating in air strikes against Islamic State with other European allies  – precisely because our global presence, and our capacities in the face of these common challenges would be diminished if we were not part of the collective. Active British engagement with and support for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) also implies recognition that the constraints of European co-operation are far outweighed by the benefits in the field of trade too. President Barack Obama has made clear that UK membership of the EU is in the ‘American interest’: put simply, the US would continue to need to engage with the EU with or without the UK in it, but the UK would simply serve less of a purpose for the US, if it could no longer speak as part of the EU.

For now, our European partners still want us to stay in the EU too. But the clock is ticking on their patience and ultimately the negative tone of our domestic debate on EU membership will erode the goodwill from our diplomats’ active engagement at the coalface of foreign policymaking. Sooner rather than later, either we in the UK need to apply ourselves properly to the question of what we want from the EU, and whether we can achieve it in the current circumstances, or our European colleagues will answer a different question – about whether we remain useful long term partners –   for us. European leaders right up to Chancellor Angela Merkel are starting to hint that if the cost of keeping the UK in rises too high, then perhaps they will simply have to accept a parting of the ways. We should remember that the upcoming elections in May are not only of huge significance for us: they will be closely watched from other European capitals as an indicator of which path the UK will choose.

Susi Dennison is Senior Policy Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) and Co-Director for European Power.


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