Britons will be asked to vote “yes” if they want to stay in the European Union when vote is held within next two years.
Glasgow, United Kingdom – Britain may not average as many referendums as plebiscite-loving Switzerland, but by UK standards the upcoming vote on the country’s continued membership in the European Union has left many breathless.
No sooner had last September’s Scottish independence referendum almost resulted in victory for the pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP) and an end to three centuries of union between Scotland and England, that the British public were looking ahead to the UK’s relationship with Europe.
Buoyed by his victory in last month’s UK general election, Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron has quickly made clear his intention to renegotiate Britain’s EU membership ahead of an in-out referendum by 2017.
At a fiery debate on Tuesday, lawmakers passed the EU Referendum Bill, which will set out the rules for the plebiscite, in a 544-53 vote.
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“If you look at the issue from David Cameron’s standpoint, then it looks as though he wants to get the [referendum] out of the way,” said Thomas Lundberg of the school of social and political sciences at the University of Glasgow of what would be the first EU referendum in Britain since 1975.
“A lot of this is just out of the fact that his [Conservative] party is divided over it – and he wants to try and strike while the iron is hot.”
Drumming up support
Following his election success in which he secured a shock – albeit slender – majority over his rivals in the House of Commons, Cameron embarked on a whirlwind tour of Europe, attempting to drum up support for a recalibration of Britain’s relationship with the EU’s 28 member states.
The British leader appeared to find some backing from the likes of French Economy Minister Emmanuel Macron who spoke of the need for Europe to adopt a “two-speed” approach. Yet, as Cameron this week was forced to deny that any government minister who did not support his position to “get a deal that’s in Britain’s interest and then recommend Britain stays in [the EU]” would be forced to resign, many have questioned the prime minister’s ability to gain worthy concessions from the EU in the first place.
“With 27 other countries [to contend with], there’s no way that he’s going to get any significant changes,” Lundberg told Al Jazeera.
He stressed any attempt to try to change the EU’s key freedom of movement tenet in order to solve the UK’s main preoccupation with controlling EU immigration, would not meet with success.
“Because if you’re going to give the British something, what about the French or Germans? So we’re looking at very minimal changes … and this is where there could be a bit of a problem for Cameron – in the sense that he’s raising expectations claiming that he’ll be able to get [major] powers back.”
It is the rise of the populist right-wing anti-EU UK Independence Party (UKIP) that has put the issue of Europe at the heart of the British agenda. Despite winning just one seat in May’s Westminster election, UKIP garnered some four million votes UK-wide to add to the 4.3 million that saw it win last year’s European elections in Britain.
And while current polls put support for staying in the EU well ahead of a British exit, many Eurosceptics are looking forward to finally getting a say on their country’s relationship with Europe.
“I want to be governed by the UK – I don’t want to be governed by people who I haven’t elected,” Andrew Fairfoull, who stood unsuccessfully as a UKIP candidate for an English constituency in the recent general election, told Al Jazeera.
“If you asked me what the most important reason of all [for the UK to leave the EU], it’s the fact that we are not governed by democratically elected politicians. We’re governed by unelected [European] bureaucrats.”
Many observers, however, say Britain’s political centre of gravity is leaning heavily towards a UK within a reformed EU. But, regardless of what – if any – concessions Cameron can get out of Europe to present to the UK electorate prior to an in-out vote, Mark Thompson told Al Jazeera that, like a great many of the British public, he would vote “in” even if “it wouldn’t be with a massive amount of enthusiasm”.
“There is a lot of good that being in the EU has done for Britain like the open borders, the no barriers to trade, European arrest warrants and so on,” conceded the independent political commentator and former Liberal Democrat member.
“We’re moving into a more globalised world, and it would seem quite strange to me if, in a few years’ time, we found ourselves as a little island on the outskirts of Europe and suddenly not even in the EU any more. It would seem like a backward step.”
With the Scottish National Party seeing its seats at Westminster mushroom from six to 56 (out of 59 Scottish constituencies) in the general election, Scotland’s emboldened first minister and SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon has voiced concerns over Scotland being dragged out of Europe “against our will”.
With surveys suggesting that Scots are keener on Europe than their English counterparts, Sturgeon has proposed that a UK exit from the EU should only be endorsed if all four of the UK’s constituent countries agreed. While such a suggestion is unlikely to find favour with Cameron, Lundberg said a UK exit would likely leave the likes of Scotland at a great disadvantage.
“If you look at other countries, the periphery – that is those on the edge – tends to get hurt if your country overall becomes disengaged from trade or its importance in the world,” said Lundberg. “Leaving the EU would make Scotland a peripheral ‘region’ in a more peripheral country. So, [an EU exit] would be bad for the UK, but even worse for Scotland.”
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EU exit door?
Does last year’s fractious Scottish independence referendum hold any lessons for the upcoming EU plebiscite – scheduled for next year or at the latest in 2017?
Like others, Thompson said last year’s historic vote – in which Scots voted by 55-45 percent to remain in the UK – was indicative of a risk-averse “conservative” Britain.
“I predicated well before the Scottish referendum that the [Union] would win because anything else is a leap into the unknown,” the political analyst said.
Majority support for “out” would clearly propel Britain towards the EU exit door. Just as a No vote in the Scottish referendum saw the defeated SNP make unexpectedly stunning gains in May’s UK election – which heralded its arrival as Westminster’s third-largest party, and provoked talk of another independence poll – so a vote for continued EU membership, especially a slender one, might also reap unexpected consequences.
“While some of these Eurosceptics in the Conservative Party might very well [settle down], others may decide that they can’t stay in the party and may join UKIP,” said Lundberg.
“UKIP is a party that’s viable – it may get hurt by the [Westminster] electoral system but it got nearly 13 percent of the UK-wide vote… This could become a problem for the Conservative Party because if they lose some people over to UKIP, then that could present problems for their majority.”
Follow Alasdair Soussi on Twitter: @AlasdairSoussi