ON this day in 1939, Germany invaded Poland and so began the Second World War to be a catalytic moment in Europe’s history. A few years after hostilities eventually ended in 1945, former enemies moved to ensure that its like would never be seen again. The creation of the European Coal and Steel Community and later the European Economic Community was something Ireland was initially detached from. However, moves to join what was to become the European Union proceeded apace from the 1950s and Ireland eventually acceded to the EU on January 1, 1973 alongside the UK and Denmark.
Ireland’s relationship with the EU has, for the most part, been largely harmonious. ‘No’ votes in the Treaty of Nice and Treaty of Lisbon referendums and concerns about EU-influenced austerity politics are not reflective of the type of Euroscepticism we see in the UK. So pronounced is anti-EU sentiment that the UK’s relationship with the EU is wavering. It seems that many in Britain are inclined to leave the EU club. The upcoming Scottish independence referendum is further complicating the tone and substance of the UK-EU debate. The reasons informing the possible ‘Brexit’ are numerous and complex, but interestingly, they are also shallow and perhaps even overstated.
Polls consistently suggest that the EU is not an issue of major concern for UK voters. In fact, the British public does not rank the EU as a priority or ‘top ten’ issue. In a May 2014 Ipsos-MORI poll, when asked how they would vote in a referendum on EU membership, a majority of Britons professed that they would opt to stay in. However, voters are divided on Britain’s longer-term role in the EU. Closer political and economic integration is the least favoured future scenario.
So why is the UK political system seemingly convulsed by the question of EU membership? The rise of The UK Independence Party (Ukip) is clearly a factor. The electoral threat it poses is influencing the actions and utterances of the Conservative Party and Prime Minister David Cameron. But how substantial is the threat? Although Nigel Farage’s party may have fared well in the May European elections (winning 24 seats), it is unlikely that comparable levels of support will materialise in a national election setting. Analysts believe that the party will, at best, secure a handful of Westminster seats in the 2015 general election and that this will not be enough for Ukip to hold the balance of power.
The recent defection by Tory MP and hard-line Eurosceptic, Douglas Carswell, to Ukip, and his decision to trigger a by-election in the process, is certainly an unwelcome development for David Cameron. Here again however, the prospect of mass defections from the Conservative Party to Ukip is unlikely.
Against this backdrop, it is quite remarkable that a small niche political party led by a political maverick and supported by a section of the media is exercising undue influence over the UK debate and national position. In short, the British political establishment’s response to Eurosceptic forces is disproportionate to the threat posed by Nigel Farage and others. David Cameron must take much of the blame for this. His reactions and responses have been at best ill-judged, at worst hazardous.
Under Cameron’s stewardship, the Tories left the dominant EPP grouping in the European Parliament; UK influence has waned following the decision not to sign up to the Fiscal Treaty in 2011; and perhaps most damaging of all is the promise of an in-out referendum in 2017 (if the party wins the next general election). Make no mistake — that decision pre-determines the tone and content of the 2015 election campaign and Eurosceptics will seek to capitalise on this. Moreover, the consequence of all these decisions is the increasing isolation of the UK in Brussels.
In choosing to pander to domestic electoral pressures, Cameron has allowed the Eurosceptics to dictate the narrative of the UK-EU debate and in so doing, he has also emboldened detractors within his own party. Paradoxically, this has actually undermined his party’s chances of securing a majority in 2015. More Ukip candidates may in fact mean gains for Labour rather than victories for Ukip.
What has been fundamentally lost in the conversation about the UK’s place in the EU is a clear acknowledgement of what the EU is, why it was created, what it has delivered and where its future lies. There is certainly much that is wrong with the EU. Indeed many of the criticisms levelled against it are fair and warranted. However, they demand a dispassionate conversation and accurate analysis, not a panicked reaction.
Using words and actions, Cameron needs to recast the negative tone of public and political discourse about the UK-EU relationship. This does not require that he deny the EU’s flaws, rather it means that the UK conversation about EU membership is balanced and informed. This is the basis on which any debate should be conducted. Thereafter, let voters make their choices.
On the 75th anniversary of the start of World War 2 and in the year that we mark the centenary of the outbreak of the Great War, we are reminded of the reasons which inspired earlier generations to embark on a process of European integration. The motivations included a desire to eradicate war between states.
Today, as we watch conflict unfold on Europe’s borders and around the world, we are further reminded of the stability and security Europeans enjoy. UK discussions about the EU must capture and communicate this context — otherwise, the debate is already lost.