The UK’s place in Europe


David Cameron’s European policy is becoming more and more uncertain as it encounters increasing concern about his pledge to hold a referendum on the United Kingdom’s place in the European Union. He has ordered his ministers to abstain this week on a motion from Eurosceptic backbenchers regretting the absence of a bill to legislate for the referendum in this parliamentary term.

His vision of a renegotiated position for the UK in a reformed EU is being rapidly transformed into one pitching those opposed to continuing British membership against those like him who want to stay in. Former party heavyweights like Nigel Lawson, Michael Portillo and Michael Forsyth have joined those calling for the UK to leave the EU. They say it is becoming a very different entity and that there are alternative opportunities to trade in a more open and globalised world without losing the political influence brought by EU membership. Their case is bolstered by the surge of support for the UK Independence party and a mood of English nationalism eroding Conservative votes and finding expression in anti-EU views.

Much of this uncertainty flows directly from Mr Cameron’s decision to support a referendum. Euroscepticism in his party has been reinforced because there is no guarantee it will be held under a different leader or government. The domestic high politics of this question are determining events, not the substance of the case in favour of the UK remaining in the EU. That case remains strong.

The EU has to decide on how a deeper euro zone will relate to other EU members, including the UK. This gives an opportunity to find a multilateral solution favouring continuing British membership. Perceptions elsewhere that British leaders do not want this or are unwilling to argue for it at home erode their credibility. The time has come for a much more clearcut case to be made by those in favour of British EU membership if they are not to lose this debate by default.