Getting to Grips with Reform, Referendum and Brexit
Part I: Europe and the British General Election of 2015
With less than 100 days to go until the General Election of 2015, the outcome of the election campaign remains wide open. Neither Labour nor the Conservative party have managed to pull clearly ahead in what has been billed as Britain’s first ‘six party’ contest (Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat, Scottish National Party, Greens and UKIP – not including the political parties of Northern Ireland or the Welsh nationalist Plaid Cymru). Opening salvos have already been fired in the campaign; yet one crucial issue that both the Conservative and Labour parties would probably prefer to say rather little about, between now and 7th May, is Britain’s relationship with the European Union.
It may not be self-evident from the coverage that has been given to the campaign so far, but the General Election of 2015 could prove to be one of the most important in British history on a par with polls held in 1918 (at which Sinn Féin swept the polls across much of Ireland, paving the way for independence for the south), 1945 (which led to the creation of much of the welfare state and the first steps towards dismantling the British Empire) or 1979 (which launched Margaret Thatcher’s programme of deregulation and liberalisation – the first of its kind in the world). Britons are faced with a similarly historic choice in 2015; for this is the election where they will decide whether to hold a referendum on their membership of the EU in just over two years. An in-or-out EU referendum remains a commitment only of the Conservative and UKIP parties (the Liberal Democrats pulled back from endorsing an ‘in-or-out’ referendum in 2014 – unless sovereignty is transferred to the EU), but Labour (which will not hold a referendum) has also indicated that it wants a ‘reformed EU’ on the basis of a renegotiation. Whoever wins the election, profound uncertainty will follow.
Grand comparisons with turning points in British history may seem overblown to you. I would retort that our relationship with the European Union touches on just about every aspect of British politics. For opponents of the EU in the UK, this is exactly the problem. More pragmatically, the fact is that Britain has been a member of the European Union and its predecessors for 42 years. If a week is a long time in politics, 42 years is pretty much an eternity. Over the course of that long period, European integration has shaped the UK profoundly and the UK, in turn, has shaped the European Union just as profoundly. One well-known consequence of this is that the EU is deeply bound up with important, if technical, matters like, say, every international trade agreement to which the UK is party, competition law, VAT, the regulation of business, mobile phone tariffs, consumer rights and so on. Perhaps less well-known is that the EU is deeply connected to the unwritten but existent British constitution and, indeed, that matters of EU politics affect the even the very territory of the United Kingdom and its continuation as a political entity. I am not exaggerating: the Scottish National Party has made it clear that it would opt to remain in the EU as an independent state if the rest of the UK secedes. In other words, the Scots would leave the UK. Northern Ireland is the UK’s most pro-European province and when it comes to a choice between a hard border with the Republic or leaving the UK, it may very well choose the latter.
Whether we are ‘in’ or ‘out’ of the EU, and on what terms, clearly matter a great deal. What is seriously lacking at the moment is a reasoned and apolitical analysis of the various alternatives. The explanation for this is two-fold. In the first place, we will not know until at least 8th May 2015 if the renegotiation-and-referendum scenario is going to happen or not. In the second place, sketching the contours of reform, renegotiation, and, possibly, secession, is an exercise with a vast number of potential known and unknown variables that would affect the outcome. Britain leaving the EU remains a hypothetical proposition. And it’s a counter-factual that is particularly difficult to imagine since no country has ever left before (except Greenland, and, arguably, Algeria – in both instances these were triggered by partial or full secession from Denmark and France respectively), even if an exit has become theoretically possible in EU law under Article 50 of the 2009 Treaty of Lisbon.
For all of these difficulties, the profound importance of the issue suggests that a research-led debate is needed. We need to begin to talk about what the consequences of “Reform” or “Brexit” are for the UK and indeed the rest of the European Union. It is our hope that blog should help contribute to that process.
Negotiating either new terms for continued British membership or Brexit will be fiendishly complicated and the outcome of talks between the UK and the rest of the EU remains by definition uncertain at the present time. Yet even now we can begin to set out the boundaries of both what is possible and what – on balance – is likely, with a view to informing the political, economic and business debate in the UK. Over the coming weeks, and in the run-up to the General Election, some of the findings from our investigations will be gradually released on this blog. I have been working on this project with two Aston colleagues, Dr Helena Farrand-Carrapico and Dr Anne-Claire Marangoni.
Yet before we can set out what “Brexit” or “Renegotiation” really mean, of necessity, we must first set out our understanding of the sequence of events that would lead to a significant change in Britain’s relationship with the European Union. In other words, the baseline scenario for our counter-factual exercise needs to be set out.
Our first substantive blog will deal with what we think would be likely to happen following a Conservative victory in the May 2015 General Election.
Professor Nathaniel Copsey
Dr Helena Farrand-Carrapico
Dr Anne-Claire Marangoni