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What Now for Britain and Europe?

The surprise result of the United Kingdom’s general election, which will return Prime Minister David Cameron and the Conservative Party to power for another five years, suggests that Britain’s voters prefer the devil they know to the devil they don’t. That may also apply, one hopes, to European Union membership, too. Indeed, with Cameron’s big win, the specter of a British exit from the European Union has begun to recede, though it remains unvanquished.

The question mark over the UK’s future within the EU had been widely seen throughout continental Europe as key to this election, yet it received barely any attention as a campaign issue. It posed too many awkward issues for the UK’s mainstream political parties, which pushed it aside to focus on domestic economic and social problems.

The main message of the election result is that British voters do not welcome the fragmentation of the political system and the rise of smaller parties leading to a new era of coalition governments. Though the debate about shifting to some form of proportional representation is not over, the result does suggest that the British electorate appreciates the stability of its traditional “first past the post” system, which favors the Conservative and Labour parties.

The clear loser in this election is the anti-EU UK Independence Party. Having gained remarkable popularity in the space of only a few years, UKIP threatened to alter the British political landscape. Despite gaining some 12-13% of the overall vote, its representation in the House of Commons has been halved – to just a single MP. Nigel Farage, UKIP’s charismatic leader, was denied the parliamentary seat he so desperately sought, and the party’s bandwagon appears to be slowing and perhaps going into reverse. Indeed, Farage has now resigned his party post.

None of this should be taken as an end to the “Brexit” threat. The next major political test for Cameron will be the “in-out” referendum on EU membership that he has pledged to hold by 2017. The number of votes cast yesterday for UKIP candidates still points to a hard fight by the government to keep Britain in Europe.

Cameron’s initial reaction to exit polls indicating that the Conservatives would be able to govern without a coalition partner was to call for a return to the “One Nation” policies – emphasizing the reduction of social and economic inequalities – that defined his party 50 years ago. The major issue, though, is whether the Tories will also embrace a “One Europe” policy.

Cameron has long insisted that he and his government will campaign for a “Yes” vote in his promised referendum. But rank-and-file Tory MPs seem increasingly Euroskeptic, with at least 60 of the Conservatives’ total of more than 300 seats in the House of Commons now reckoned to be occupied by die-hard anti-Europeans.

This parliamentary arithmetic suggests that while Cameron’s personal stature and authority may have received a strong boost, he will be very vulnerable to pressure from his own MPs. Unless he agrees to water down the new government’s pro-EU stance, runs the argument, he could very well suffer a rebellion and even the collapse of his majority.

Because EU membership figured so little in the UK’s election campaign, it is difficult to gauge the country’s mood on the issue. Business leaders have swung belatedly into action with warnings of the serious economic consequences of Brexit, but voting intentions – as the election has plainly demonstrated – are opaque.

Cameron regards himself as an internationalist who is at odds with the “Little Englanders” within his party. His best policy now would be to capitalize on his surprise victory and set a very early date for the referendum. He has been repeatedly advised that his promised “re-negotiation” of Britain’s EU membership cannot yield any substantial results; so he should opt for a vote before the end of this year, thereby preempting the humiliation implied by rejection of Britain’s demands by almost all other EU governments.

For British voters, this election was all about Britain. The main question was whether the sacrifices of tough austerity measures are now being rewarded by economic growth that outstrips the eurozone. The outcome has endorsed the Cameron government’s view that austerity was worth the price. But the view of many European politicians and commentators that this election was about much more than the UK is also true.

The EU can heave a sigh of relief that the UK’s membership will not be a political football to be kicked around in an unruly melee of coalitions, and that British voters apparently favor the status quo rather than the unknown. But Cameron will still face a tough fight over Britain’s future in Europe.

By Giles Merritt

Giles Merritt is Editor of Europe’s World and heads the Brussels-based think tank Friends of Europe.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2015.


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