Result hands Cameron mandate to hold referendum on EU
Ireland must decide how to balance links with Britain with EU relationship
The surprise Tory triumph makes one thing virtually certain - a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union is likely to take place within the next two years. Photographer: Aidan Crawley/Bloomberg.
In many ways the decisive victory for the Conservative Party represented the worst possible outcome for those concerned about Britain’s future in the European Union.
The surprise Tory triumph makes one thing virtually certain - a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union is likely to take place within the next two years.
Ever since David Cameron announced his intention to hold an in-out referendum on EU membership in January 2013, officials and EU leaders have been keen to point out that this position was the view of the Conservative Party, not the British government.
The general election result has changed that. Cameron now has a Conservative majority in the House of Commons and arguably a mandate from the British public to hold a referendum on EU membership by 2017.
The absence of the Liberal Democrats from government is also a blow for those hoping that the presence of a pro-European party in government could have reined in Conservative euroscepticism.
Although the multilingual Nick Clegg, a former EU official and Europhile, had changed his stance in recent weeks, hinting that he might have agreed to an EU referendum as a condition of coalition government, the presence of the Lib Dems would undoubtedly have tempered the debate. Instead, Cameron has now been given the green light to begin negotiations with Europe about a recalibrated relationship with the European Union.
Domestically, the main challenge for Cameron will be trying to meet the demands of the right-wing eurosceptic wing within his own party.
This is a dilemma with which the Conservative Party has struggled before. The government of John Major in the 1990s was bedevilled by internal division over Europe. Mr Cameron is likely to face similar opposition from eurosceptic Conservative MPs as he begins negotiations with the European Union. In short, almost anything he brings back from Brussels is unlikely to satisfy some of the more extreme eurosceptics , though his decision to hold a referendum may be a way of settling the Europe question that has divided the Conservative party for decades once and for all.
Nonetheless, with Cameron himself having indicated he would advocate a Yes vote on a reformed relationship with Europe, this potentially sets up the possibility of a Conservative Party split on how to vote on a referendum.
Attention will now turn to what specific requests the British government will seek from the European Union as it begins the difficult process of negotiation. Since the announcement of a proposed referendum more than two year ago, there have been constant grumblings in Brussels about Britain’s failure to clarify the changes it is seeking.
The focus of the negotiations will undoubtedly be on immigration and a demand for reduced bureaucracy and red tape. Financial services regulation and the EU budget are also a British concern. But any major transfer of power from Brussels to London is likely to demand EU treaty change, something that virtually all member states are unlikely to support. The hope that Britain could piggy-back on a reopening of the EU treaties that many saw as inevitable as the euro area continues to integrate, looks highly unlikely, particularly within the next two years.
The more likely outcome is that British officials in Brussels secure changes within existing EU legislation which Cameron can then sell to the British people. The Conservative Party will also have to bring pockets of the highly-eurosceptic British media along with it, as it tries to package a renegotiated relationship with the European Union to the public as the best deal for Britain.
While senior EU figures such as European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker and European Council president Donald Tusk will play a key role in the coming negotiations, the real political decisions will lie with member states, particularly behemoths like Germany and France. While Cameron will be hoping that his good relations with German chancellor Angela Merkel will stand him in good stead, Germany and others are unlikely to bow to any significant change to EU free movement rules, despite Germany sharing some of Britain’s concerns over migration.
The Irish Government will also be forced to ask itself some searching questions about whether it can play a more active role in helping to secure Britain’s membership of the European Union. The threats of a British exit to Irish interests are enormous. Ireland must now decide how to balance its relationship with Britain with its commitment to the European Union over the coming years as Britain’s future in the European Union is decided.