There’s been much talk and media attention (including the usage of the wonderful new word “Brexit”) on the consequences of the UK general election on Europe and on Britain’s membership to the bloc. But is there really much to fear from the outcome of the election? Will it have a huge impact on Europe? Probably not.
The parties all agree that the EU need to be reformed, but beyond that they go in varying directions. UKIP unsurprisngly is the only party that is strictly advocating for leaving the bloc. The Conservatives are next in wanting to stay in the EU but keen to point out that they have been tough with the EU and stopped it from getting more out of Britain. Labour, the Lib Dems, and the SNP are all much more pro-EU and are willing to admit the economic benefits it has brought the UK.
What needs to be examined first is the possible coalitions (as no party is projected to be even close to a majority on its own). On the Tory side, they can be assumed to be willing to work with the Liberal Democrats and perhaps UKIP–although it does not seem likely the Liberal Democrats would work with UKIP. If the UK had a proportional representation system this would be fine and David Cameron would probably be back in office with his promised 2017 referendum.
However the UK does not have an electoral system that is in any way proportional and so despite UKIP hovering between 10-15 percent of the vote across the country, the best projections give them 4 seats out of 650. The Lib Dems are also not going to be much help either as their support has collapsed and are projected to lose many of their seats. It is tough to see how David Cameron could reach a second term, especially as the Scottish National Party (SNP) have flat out said they will do anything to prevent him from doing so.
For Labour, the projections pose a significant problem that the party is making even worse. Ed Miliband has flat out rejected making any deal with the SNP when the Scots seem to be the only way for him to get a majority. Labour will fall short of its own majority, and the Lib Dems will not have enough to carry them over. All that’s left is help from the SNP which in turn is the reason Labour cannot get a majority on its own because the SNP has wiped it out across the board in Scotland, adding perhaps 50 MPs to the SNP’s group at westminster.
Again, it is hard to see any other combination, so the two most likely forms the next UK government could take is either Tory-led with Lib Dems and maybe UKIP, or Labour-led with the SNP keeping it afloat.
Consequences for Europe and the referendum depend on each but I don’t envision the outcome to be that different. First concerning a Labour-led government–the party itself does not support an in-out referendum and instead calls for cooperation with European partners and “reform” of the EU. Furthermore, the SNP is in no way going to allow a possible Brexit to happen if it has a say. The party is staunchly pro-membership and has even proposed that in case of an in-out referendum, each country within the UK should have to vote yes in order for the whole country to leave the bloc.
As for a Tory-led government, the situation obviously becomes a bit more unstable. It seems that a referendum on membership would go ahead. David Cameron has promised it so much now that it seems unfeasible for him to go back on it. This could put the UK in a curious situation where the country will hold a referendum, but the acting government, who called for the referendum, would be advocating for the UK to stay in. Of course this bears the question of how popular the government will be at the time and if it would actually help the “in” campaign.
In this election it has become clear that the EU is not a top issue for voters. The bigger issues have been the NHS, jobs and zero hour contracts, and immigration (admittingly often related to the EU). In each of the parties’ manifestos, the section on the EU is at the end of the document. Only Nigel Farage is insistent on blaming the EU for all of Britain’s problems, repeatedly coming back to it when given the chance during the debates.
All of this comes on the back of latest polling data showing a record number of Brits actually want to stay IN the European Union, even approaching a majority.
With more and more people wishing to stay in the EU, with UKIP falling off (slightly) in the polls and prevented from having too much influence thanks to the first past the post system, and the government itself wanting to keep the UK within the EU, it is highly unlikely the relationship between the EU and the UK will change much in the future, at least in practical terms.
Clearly Brussels would prefer Labour, as its rhetoric is much more positive about the EU and its economic benefits. Another five years of David Cameron will probably see Britain become even more alienated in Brussels and with even fewer allies than it has left now. However, politicians and business leaders, and the media, should not get into such a frenzy over a possible but very unlikely Brexit. 2017 is a far way away, but save for a monumental shift in public opinion or political disaster in Brussels, the UK will remain in the EU.