Legally Opinionated

Across the Channel: Race to the Right


“Not again”. That must have been the thought crossing the minds of many a Labour Party operative shortly after the publication of the ominous exit poll spelling the Opposition’s defeat in the 2015 UK general election at 22:00 on 7 May. Until that second, the narrative had been one of the governing Conservative Party having been cornered by the largely unimpressive, yet apparently sufficiently error-free performance of the Leader of the Opposition, Ed Miliband. Due to the persistent unpopularity of the economic austerity prescribed by Prime Minister David Cameron’s government and the increase in strength of parties all rejecting the Conservatives’ continuation in office, most commentators saw it as a done deal that the Tories would lose the election. Conversely, Labour would manage to narrowly edge ahead as the senior partner in a rag-tag, rainbow coalition made up of itself, the Liberal Democrats and Greens, with outside support from the strong Scottish National Party contingent and the Welsh nationalists of Plaid Cymru. Wrong.

The morning after, the Conservatives had won a majority in the House of Commons, whilst Labour ended up almost 100 seats behind the Tories. Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats were decimated from an erstwhile 57 seats to a mere 8 MPs. In Scotland, the separatist SNP swept most of the region’s seats – whilst the severely Eurosceptic UK Independence Party led by star media performer Nigel Farage scored one measly seat out of 650 constituencies.The short era of coalition politics in the United Kingdom is over – normal service has resumed on 8 May 2015.  So that’s the end of it, right?

Wrong again. This was merely the warmup for the real thing: the 2016 referendum on the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union. Yes, whilst David Cameron has been saying that he wants the referendum to occur sometime before “the end of 2017”, there are some compelling reasons to stage it in 2016:

A number of factors are likely to complicate Mr Cameron’s bid to extract concessions from his fellow heads of government (and contrary to some of the discussions seen in the vocal British media, they will be the principal addressees – not Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker or the President of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz):

What it may ultimately come down to is Mr Cameron extracting concessions from the other Member States, but not in form of a Treaty change (which would be unlikely to be approved prior to the 2016 referendum anyway) – but an intergovernmental agreement, similar to the Treaty establishing the European Stability Mechanism. The Prime Minister could then rightly argue to have won a substantive victory, especially given how the ESM has become part of the EU’s institutional arrangements.

In fact, it can be argued that much of the Union’s problems in recent years have stemmed from having avoided a clear-cut debate on what it wants to be. Does it wish to be an EFTA-style trading bloc? Or maybe a confederation with extended powers in key areas like competition law, trade and scientific exchange? Or a federation along the lines of Canada, Australia and the United States? Rather than dismissing British concerns about the course of the Union, maybe the debate about the possible exit of one of the most successful economies within the bloc could be an appropriate opportunity to reflect on a better way of getting things done. And maybe, just maybe, Mr Cameron’s pledge to hold that in/out referendum (provided the “In” side wins, that is) could result in Britain taking a much more active role in European affairs. It would certainly not be unwelcome.