With UKIP gaining 26% of the national vote in the recent local elections, accompanied by high profile statements from both Michael Gove and Philip Hammond stating that they would support British withdrawal from the EU, it would be easy to get the impression that the days of Britain’s EU membership are numbered. David Cameron, who remains more of a Europhile than most in his party, has made it clear that withdrawal would only follow a referendum, most likely to be held in 2017. Despite pundits and opinion polls suggesting to the contrary, the likelihood of a majority of the population coming out in support of EU withdrawal remains a distant prospect.
A series of polls by Yougov during 2013 have shown that on average 41% of the British population would vote in support of European withdrawal, whilst 35% would vote to continue Britain’s EU membership. This represents a consistent trend; Euroscepticism amongst voters peaked in 2011, and polling has consistently shown that the European Union remains unpopular amongst the British electorate.
This does not, however, match the intensity of Euroscepticism that preceded the previous referenda on Britain’s EEC membership, occurring just two years after Britain joined the European Community in 1973. Six months prior to the poll, the withdrawal campaign had a clear lead in the opinion polls, yet the eventual result saw continued membership supported by a massive 2:1 majority. Whilst opinion polling can give easily digestible headline figures, it is important to consider how public opinion may be affected both by intense campaigning from both sides and possible alterations to Britain’s relationship with the European community.
Pre-referendum campaigning will inevitably have a heavy focus on the economic benefits of EU membership, particular the impact of withdrawal upon trade and unemployment levels. Critically, it is clear that the economic impact of EU withdrawal is subject to great uncertainty, and is likely to remain uncertain until British withdrawal were to actually occur. Debate will focus on the perceived economic costs of EU regulations and the perceived benefits of membership of the single market; however it will remain exceptionally difficult for the ‘outers’ to convince the public that withdrawal has no chance of significantly damage Britain’s economic interests. In the context of great uncertainty over such a pressing concern to voters, we should expect the status quo to prevail.
It also seems unlikely that any referenda will not preceded by some form of renegotiation of the terms of Britain’s relationship with the EU, most likely embodying a transfer of powers from Brussels to Westminster. The union itself has much to lose from the exit of Europe’s third largest economy, whilst Britain’s opt out of both the Schengen area agreement and partial opt out of the European Working Time Directive illustrate the scope for flexibility in Britain’s relationship with the union. Moreover, given current popular discontent towards the EU, there is clearly domestic political capital to be gained from a repatriation of powers towards Britain, whilst both Cameron and Miliband’s personal support for EU membership suggest that this represents a desirable strategy for either of them to pursue in office during the next parliament. Further examination of recent polling data by Yougov is telling in these circumstances; when asked how they would vote in a referendum following a renegotiation of relations in which British interests are better protected, only 26% of voters would support withdrawal, compared to 51% who would opt for continued EU membership.
British withdrawal from the EU requires the combining of a number of improbable steps, requiring both the political will to both implement a referendum on Britain’s EU membership as well as needing a majority of the public to support withdrawal. Cameron has already previously reneged on a promise to renegotiate Britain’s relationship with the EU, breaking the ‘cast-iron guarantee’ he made in opposition to hold a referendum on the Lisbon treaty upon coming to office. That’s often conveniently forgotten by the hopeful Euro-sceptic. Despite the rising fortunes of UKIP, Europe does not remain a salient issue amongst voters, who are far more concerned about the fate of the economy and public services. Whilst headlines about the EU may dominate in the coming weeks, we should not forget that the Tory backbenchers do not reflect the views of the nation at large, and that Britain’s ties to its European neighbours have survived far choppier waters than those it faces today.