British politics is in turbulence — so far as the place of Europe in Britain and the vice versa are concerned. This is because of a surging anti-EU tide in the UK. A part of this tide is owed to the conservative party’s over-reaction to the rise of Eurosceptic United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) in the elections for the European parliament early this year and its good showing in subsequent by-elections.
The UKIP gained the highest share of votes in the EU elections, increasing its tally of European parliamentary representation from 11 to 24 seats on a highest share of 27 per cent of vote on a rabidly anti-European platform. The significance of UKIP’s anti-European tide can be truly measured when set beside the pro-European party, the Liberal Democrats, which slipped to its lowest share of vote in recent history, with only one MP elected on the European ticket.
More worryingly for the Tory Party, the UKIP managed to win its first-ever parliamentary seat in the House of Commons in a by-election. These UKIP gains have coincided with defection of two Conservative MPs to the UKIP.
Predictably, the Conservative Party has reacted to this by offering its own brand of anti-Euro rhetoric in an effort to staunch further defections and satisfy its own Euro-phobic base. This turnaround on Europe is manifest in the Tory Prime Minister, David Cameron, putting out troubling anti-EU feelers to the party and country at large.
The first was to oppose the nomination of the EU president Jean Junker against a majority of the EU countries this year. As predicted, Britain could not stop the confirmation, leaving it in the marginal company of Hungary. To be thus classed with Hungary on the Eurosceptic spectrum was not something salutary for Britain, with deep historical links with Europe and a heavy-hitting role on the European scene.
The other was to truckle to Eurosceptic wing of the party by announcing an in-out referendum on the EU membership in 2017. Cameron further announced the impossible, the intention of re-negotiating terms of British membership treaty with the EU.
Besides these headlines, there were other sideline issues as well, such as British opting out of the EU human right conventions and slapping further restrictions on migrants from the new EU members.
Of all these issues, the immigration has generated a mix of emotive and procedural responses. The right-wing tabloid press has built on this anti-immigration mood promoted by mainstream political parties by putting out its own share of xenophobic stories. That anti-immigration is a new mainstream is confirmed by the ennoblement of Sir Andrew Green, an ex-ambassador and outspoken critics of immigration policy.
Yet, Jose Barroso, the outgoing president of the EU Commission, has reacted strongly to any suggestion of Britain’s effort to restrict entry of the European nationals as violative of the cardinal principle of freedom of movement on which the whole edifice of the European single market is erected.
The resurgence of these anti-EU sentiments may be dated back to the financial crisis of 2008. Many people fear that the Eurozone crisis would trigger movement of more people into the UK that is already wrapped up in economic difficulties brought on by the sluggish growth and harsh austerity measures pursued by the sitting government in London. The result has been the conflation of anti-EU and anti-immigration sentiments into a narrative not conducive to rational discussion.
This prevailing mood has forced all major parties to recalibrate their EU and immigration policies. Labour Party, normally more accepting of immigrants, has stiffened its position too — with Ed Miliband, its leader, indicating to enhance deportation and admitting that Labour followed a wrong immigration policy in the past. On the other hand, the Liberal Democratic Party, in coalition with the Tories, has also rowed back its bold suggestion of granting general amnesty to all illegal immigrants, as is the wont in the rest of Europe.
Along with these developments, a strong anti-European current within the Conservative Party is asserting itself. The party is almost emptied of pro-European figures, with the exception of a few led by Ken Clarke.
There has been a gradual erosion of the EU brand with no major political party championing it in the midst of the anti-Europe hysteria. As a result, the UKIP/Tory narrative of a Britain progressing independent of the EU enjoys an unchallenged run in large sections of the press. This narrative runs counter to the untold history of Europe as a breathtaking density of interdependencies and inter-relationships as pointed out by Will Hutton. For instance, the UK’s car industry and business are dependent on the EU single market for prosperity. In addition, there is a big crossover of 2.3 EU citizens living in the UK and 1.8 million British residing in Europe.
Given the anti-European UKIP/Tory Party rhetoric, the chance of Britain tumbling out of Europe is being increasingly mooted. But Britain has an important role to play in Europe as a major European power. The country can act as the leader of a strong group of countries which are fearful of the dominance of Franco-German axis in the EU.
There is also a strong business case for staying within the EU. One good sign is that most of the people are on the side of pragmatism which requires the UK to be part of Europe. Two recent polls, one conducted by Mori and another by YouGov, show a significant number of people rooting for staying in the EU if David Cameron wrings some nominal concession from the EU.
This hands the prime minister another opportunity to salvage the situation and reassert his own pragmatic and pro-European instincts rather than going down the road of appeasing Eurosceptic strand within his own party and the toxic anti-European agenda of the UKIP.
All other pro-European political parties need to step forward to take up the challenge of arguing a compelling case for staying within the EU.