British Prime Minister David Cameron announced today that he will give the British people a straightforward ‘in or out’ referendum on membership of the European Union if his party wins the next general election in 2015.
The announcement follows months of speculation over a possible referendum, and has been warmly welcomed by the country’s anti-European right-wing press. In the past all of the major political parties in the UK have promised a referendum on membership of the European Union, but is has always failed to materialise. This has led to sustained pressure from certain sections of the press for politicians to live up to their promises.
If Cameron wins the next election, then the vote will take place between 2015 and 2018, with 2017 being mooted as the most likely date.
“It is time for the British people to have their say. It is time for us to settle this question about Britain and Europe,” said Cameron. Britain does not want to ‘pull up the drawbridge’ and retreat from the world, he added, whilst acknowledging that public disillusionment with the EU is at “an all-time high”.
The Prime Minister also defended his decision to delay the vote until after the next election, saying that he wants to try to re-negotiate Britain’s place in Europe first.
“When we have negotiated that new settlement, we will give the British people a referendum with a very simple in or out choice to stay in the European Union on these new terms; or come out altogether. It will be an in-out referendum,” he said.
For many years opinion polls in Britain have shown a small majority of voters in favour of leaving the European Union. Many British people resent the costs associated with EU bureaucracy, complain about unnecessarily large amounts of regulation, and worry that constant incremental transfers of power from London to Brussels are eroding British sovereignty and inching us towards a Federal ‘United States of Europe’.
The recent debt crisis in Europe has only served to strengthen the had of Euro-Skeptics. Many politicians and citizens alike blame the European single currency for making the crisis worse, and anti-EU politicians have been able to point to this as proof that they were correct all along, and that they have already saved the country from disaster by successfully opposing membership of the Euro-zone.
Over the past couple of years the UK Independence Party, which started life as a single issue political movement campaigning for an EU exit, has seen its support skyrocket.
The EU also suffers from a ‘democratic deficit’. Few voters know what they are voting for in European elections, and there is a strong public perceptions that Brussels imposes laws from afar with no real democratic mandate. Mr Cameron acknowledged this in his speech today, describing Democratic consent for the EU as “wafer thin”.
“Some people say that to point this out is irresponsible, creates uncertainty for business and puts a question mark over Britain’s place in the European Union,” said Cameron. “But the question mark is already there: ignoring it won’t make it go away.”
“Simply asking the British people to carry on accepting a European settlement over which they have had little choice is a path to ensuring that when the question is finally put – and at some stage it will have to be – it is much more likely that the British people will reject the European Union.”
Politicians VS the People
Despite leading a party with a substantial Euro-Skeptic wing, and championing the people’s right to a referendum, it is likely that Mr Cameron will campaign for an ‘in’ vote which would see Britain remain within the European Union. He favours reform to repatriate powers, halt the movement towards a Federal Europe, and create a looser version of full membership for the UK. This means Britain’s three biggest parties are all likely to campaign together for a vote to remain in the EU, and it will only be the fringe UK Independence Party campaigning to leave.
It seems to me that this could serve to accentuate the public perception that the EU is a pet project of politicians, who have driven it through regardless of the wishes of the people.