The UK and Europe
Conservatives will not split over Europe
Mujtaba Rahman / Oct 2015
David Cameron, UK prime minister. Photo: Shutterstock
The debate over the UK’s future in the European Union is about to heat up. British Prime Minister David Cameron is expected to send a letter to European Council President Donald Tusk in early November outlining the UK’s key demands. These demands will cover four major areas, and provide the foundation upon which Cameron will argue the UK’s relationship with the EU has now been “transformed”.
The first is competiveness. Here the government wants to see the EU focus on trade deals, completion of the EU single market for services, and its extension to digital e-commerce. The government would also like to see less regulatory activism by the European Commission. Second, on national sovereignty, Cameron wants some form of opt out from European integration (known in EU treaties as “Ever Closer Union”) and a statement that the EU is a multi-currency union. Third, the government wants to secure safeguards for countries who do not use the Euro. Here the UK is joined by 9 other EU countries, all of which are concerned about the EU being dominated by the Eurozone. Finally, the government wants to ensure EU nationals pay into the UK’s welfare state before being able to take out of it, especially regarding housing and child benefit.
As this list makes clear, the reforms Cameron will secure are not going to be substantial. And over the course of the next few weeks, much noise is going to be made about Cameron’s disappointing deal. Many commentators are suggesting a poor deal from Brussels will risk splitting Cameron’s Conservatives. But this is a major exaggeration. In our view, this will only have a limited impact on politics and public opinion.
First, even the most Eurosceptic Conservative MPs expect a very limited package. And this group of MPs, which numbers around 70, will argue to leave the EU regardless of what Cameron’s final deal looks like.
Second, while it is true there are some Eurosceptics who are annoyed with Cameron over the way he is approaching the referendum, it is only some of them, and these are mainly people who have left the government or have been around long enough that they can afford to be difficult because their careers have nowhere else to go.
Third, Cameron has a lot of good will among his party for allowing this referendum to take place. What is more, plenty of other Eurosceptics are not really annoyed with Cameron at all. They know his views on the EU, but are grateful for the referendum.
Fourth, the new parliament elected in May contains a generation of younger Conservative MPs who feel very loyal to Cameron and who will not be inclined to challenge him. The older generation will also be very sensitive about party unity: many bad memories linger in the party’s consciousness about the splits over Europe under John Major and their subsequent losses in the 1997 election to Tony Blair.
Finally, there are a number of confirmed Europhiles who will support the campaign for the UK to stay in the EU. Moreover of the 200 or so MPs who are yet undecided, most will likely eventually support Cameron’s position that the UK should stay in the EU. These MP’s are, however, likely to remain on the sidelines during the campaign so as not to alienate their more Eurosceptic core voters (a lot of these MPs have already decided how to vote, but do not want to hassle of having to defend the position they take. This is because declaring you would vote to stay in would simply invite hundreds of Eurosceptic constituents to bombard these MPs with letters and emails on the subject). This is why many MPs are unlikely to declare their hand unless they need to.
Taken together, it remains very unlikely the Conservatives will lose their ability to govern over this issue. And while there will always be tensions within the Conservative Party over the EU, the risks are currently being overstated.