Should the United Kingdom leave the European Union? It is the issue that has split Britain’s politicians
It is the issue that has brought down three British prime ministers, split the Conservative party and caused anger, confusion and bewilderment among Britain's allies and neighbours. Now, once again, Britain's government is tearing itself apart over Europe. Should the United Kingdom leave the European Union? Should it hold a referendum on its 40-year membership? Would Britain be ruined if it quit the 27-member organisation, or would it be free at last to set its own policies and pursue its own destiny free of Brussels?
The past week has seen the most serious challenge to his authority that David Cameron has faced since he became Prime Minister three years ago. But the opposition has come not from the Labour party, or from the Liberal Democrats, Cameron's coalition allies, but from his own Conservative party. Many party members are furious that the coalition government is pursuing policies seen as too liberal. They want to see a much tougher stance on curbing immigration, cutting back welfare payments, withdrawing the bill to allow gay marriage and, above all, introducing legislation as soon as possible to allow Britons a referendum on whether they want to remain in the EU.
The revolt by dozens of right-wing Conservatives has been prompted by two things: the growing unpopularity of the Government because of austerity policies; and the astonishing rise of a populist right-wing party, the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). This new party has just won a massive number of seats in councils across England in recent local elections. In some areas, it came close to ousting Conservative councillors; in others, UKIP candidates with very little political experience were far ahead of the Labour or Liberal Democrats candidates. Most UKIP candidates won votes from disillusioned Conservatives who complain the Cameron is a weak leader, has no idea of the hardship that budget cuts and austerity are imposing on millions of Britons and is dithering over the issue of Europe.
Clearly, UKIP is benefitting from the mid-term protest vote that always threatens any government in power. But Conservative members of Parliament are fightened. They believe that the UKIP leader, Nigel Farage, a charismatic and loud-mouthed former member of the European Parliament, is likely to win millions of votes in any general election, threatening Conservative seats. And so in the past week they have dramatically stepped up the pressure on Cameron to force him to include a promise of a referendum on the EU in the next parliamentary timetable.
Cameron has been trying for months to avoid just such a commitment. Britain does not have a tradition of referendums, having held only two (on the EU in 1975, and on a new voting system in 2011). The danger is that voters would take it as a general test of the government's popularity, and would vote "No", whatever the question. The other problem for the British Prime Minister is the the small Liberal Democratic party, his coalition allies, are passionately pro-Europe and are determined not to allow a referendum which they know could easily be lost.
Cameron is also an economic realist. He knows that leaving the EU altogether would be disastrous to Britain's struggling economy. More than half Britain's exports go to EU nations, and any new tariff barriers would be very damaging. In addition, Britain would be excluded from important decision-making on a whole range of issues that affect its vital interests: the environment, the single market, common foreign and security policies, trade deals with China, America and the rest of the world. The idea that Britain could maintain a trade relationship but remain outside the EU, like Switzerland and Norway, is seen as laughable. Britain would have almost no influence over decisions that could vitally affect its future.
Instead, therefore, the Prime Minister proposed in a long-awaited speech in January to renegotiate Britain's relations with Brussels. He called for the repatriation to London of many powers now wielded by Brussels, an opt-out for policies on labour law and other issues where Britain dislikes outside interference and an end to any efforts to create a closer fiscal and political union. If these talks are successful, he said, he would then recommend that Britons should vote "yes" in a referendum he promised would be held after the next election and before 2017.
There are two big problems. First, none of Britain's partners is likely to make any meaningful concession that would allow London more opt-outs or to repatriate powers from Brussels. Germany, the most powerful member of the EU, is keen to keep Britain as a member because of its diplomatic experience, its pragmatism and its use as a counterweight to France and other southern EU members. But Angela Merkel is not likely to make more than cosmetic adjustsments to keep Cameron happy, and is certainly unwilling to renegotiate fundamental aspects of the EU treaties, fearing this would then encourage every other member to make demands of their own.
The second problem is that the Conservatives do not believe a word of Cameron's promise. They think he will not be able to make any real changes in the way the EU is run and that he is simply postponing a referendum in the hope that the issue will go away. They have therefore openly challenged him to include a referendum - and two of his senior ministers have even said they would vote to leave the EU if a vote were held tomorrow.
Cameron knows that he is being threatened on the right and that many of his party may even defect to UKIP. Embarrassingly, he was making a visit to the United States when the Conservative fury over the UKIP victories erupted. He was dogged by questions over domestic politics when he had hoped for good public relations in his meeting with Obama. The US president tried to help him by publicly backing Britain's call for talks with the EU. But it is no secret that America thinks Britain would be mad to pull out, and that America would have far less use for Britain as an ally if it were outside the EU.
There is a real worry that the Conservative party could now split over Europe. The irony is that the issue is of little concern to most voters. They think that the economy, immigration, jobs and the health service are of far more importance than relations with the EU. But whereas in the past the anti-Europeans (or "Eurosceptics" as they used to be called) were a small minority, the implacables now constitute at least a third of the party. And ministers and former minister are now openly ridiculing Cameron's plans for renegotiation with Brussels, saying that they will prove "inconsequential".
The sole comfort for Cameron is that the opposition Labour Party looks equally divided. Ed Miliband, its leader, opposes a referendum on the EU but faces internal pressure to show that he trusts the electorate to make a choice. The Liberal Democrats are in a similar dilemma. Nigel Farage's problem may be that his party has grown too quickly, and has attracted a lot of racists, far-right fanatics and others with dubious backgrounds. Many have little experience of politics, and several have been show to be extremely naive in their views and campaigning. But Farage, for the moment, is well placed to make a huge change to British politics. He may even be responsible for the coalition government splitting up and Cameron calling for an early general election. If that happens, UKIP is sure to do very well. Once again, Europe is proving a hard issue for British politics to handle.