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The chances of an EU referendum in the next parliament are wildly overstated

A Conservative majority remains unlikely and EU treaty change could take many years to come to fruition.

David Cameron delivers his speech on the UK's relationship with the EU at Bloomberg's headquarters in London on 23 January. Photograph: Getty Images.

If promising referendums were a good way of winning votes then you can be sure there would be more politicians promising them. There have been two (nationwide) held in the past 40 years: one on the UK’s membership of the European Economic Community in 1975; the other on the voting system in 2011. Polls suggest they are always popular in theory, (after all, who could be against ‘giving the people a say’?) but in practice, voters generally seem happy to be left alone outside of election time (which probably explains 2011’s somewhat deflating 42% turnout).

Why do I mention this? Chiefly to challenge the notion that a growing public appetite is making an in/out EU referendum inevitable. The surging popularity of the UK Independence Party and the Conservative Party’s loud commitment to a referendum in 2017 have lent credence to the idea that an unstoppable momentum is building in favour of a referendum in the next parliament (and possibly before). It's a case that has been wildly overstated.

Polls show two-thirds of voters in favour of a referendum on EU membership, but there is little evidence the issue would induce many of them to change their votes at an election. In fact quite the reverse: just 7% of voters mention Europe when asked to list “important issues facing Britain today” with only 2% identifying it as “the most important”. It speaks volumes that UKIP, a party whose raison d’être is to pull the country out of the EU, spends most of its time these days talking about immigration rather than Brussels. The two are related of course (Nigel Farage warns of an impending tide of Romanian criminals once immigration restrictions lapse in 2014), but the 7% of voters listing Europe among their top issues is dwarfed by the 35% mentioning immigration, the 50% mentioning the economy and the 26% mentioning the NHS. Put simply, the EU question is unlikely to play a significant part in the 2015 general election. Labour and the Lib Dems have little to fear from failing to match the Conservative pledge.

As to that pledge itself, it is only certain to be fulfilled in the event the Conservatives win an outright majority. But the chances of this appear to be diminishing. Current polling projects a Labour majority of around 100 seats. This is almost certainly too generous to Labour if one assumes a modest revival in the economy and the return of some UKIP voters to the Conservatives ahead of polling day (both of which seem likely). However, for the Tories to improve on their 2010 performance they would need to buck the trend of the last eight elections, which have seen the governing party's vote share fall on each occasion. There are no immutable laws of politics, but the last election’s circumstances were very conducive to a Conservative win (13-year old government, faltering economy, deeply unpopular PM); their removal and the added threat from UKIP suggest the trend is unlikely to be broken in 2015.

If one expects a Conservative defeat at the next election then a referendum is no more likely now than it was in January 2011 when the coalition government first legislated for a  ‘referendum lock’. This is a law mandating a referendum in the event of treaty change which transfers more powers from the UK to Brussels. Both Labour and the Lib Dems have pledged to retain the lock. This is significant. Nick Clegg has stated that it is a question of “when, not if” the UK holds a referendum. In the long run, this is probably true.

Yet EU treaty change could take many years to come to fruition. French President François Hollande, who will be in power until at least 2016, is desperate to avoid it, not least because the last one, Lisbon, split his party. The Netherlands has also expressed a distinct lack of enthusiasm. Balancing the competing demands of debtor countries and creditors, once it starts, will also likely be a long, laborious process. And that process isn’t even close to beginning. Meanwhile, while the Lisbon Treaty took just six months to negotiate, it was almost entirely based on the failed EU Constitution which took three and a half years from proposal to the start of the doomed ratification process.

Beyond the significant question marks over when a referendum would actually take place, there is also the small matter of the likely result. Readers of ASR’s Politics Monthly will be familiar with our position on the current polling data, which shows a plurality of voters in favour of exit. This, in our view, simply reflects the one-sided nature of the debate that has dominated discourse over Europe in Britain for the past two decades. There has been little incentive for politicians in favour of Britain’s EU membership to argue its case from day to day – passionate arguments for maintaining the status quo aren’t the stuff great political oratory is made of – but a widely-publicised referendum would likely prompt many who have up to now kept quiet to speak up.

On one side of the debate would be UKIP, the eurosceptic press and a cabal of backbench, mostly Conservative, MPs; on the other would likely be the leaders of all three main parties, the non-eurosceptic press and, potentially the trump card, a majority of the business community. Faced with arguments from non-partisan business people that leaving the EU would cost thousands of British jobs, we believe the British public would, reluctantly perhaps, vote to stay.