Is British Withdrawal from the EU Inevitable?
On Friday, November 14, 2014, the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) hosted a roundtable discussion with the Editor-in-Chief of E!Sharp and Chairman of Global Forum Paul Adamson and Sir Michael Leigh, Senior Advisor at GMF and a 2015 Fellow with the Transatlantic Academy, on the question of British withdrawal from the European Union. In light of Prime Minister David Cameron’s pledge to hold a referendum on British membership in the EU in 2017 (should he win reelection in 2015), the conversation explored the UK’s relationship with the EU as it currently stands, as well as possible scenarios for the country’s European future.
Sir Michael opened the discussion by examining the prevalence of euroskepticism in the UK and how it differs from anti-EU sentiments in other member states. Adamson pointed to the high turnout for the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) in the May 2014 European Parliament elections, noting that UKIP’s particularly “quirky” brand of euroskepticism is appealing partly because it is less xenophobic and racist than traditional euroskeptic parties. Moreover, it benefits from a charismatic leader who comes across as respectable and mainstream. Sir Michael described how the rise of euroskepticism in Britain is not simply a momentary phenomenon, but rather has deep-rooted causes. While immigration issues and the global financial crisis, exacerbated by the euro crisis, have accelerated the rise of anti-EU parties in other countries, the bedrock of euroskepticism in the UK stems from several factors ranging from historical feelings of isolation to current economic performance. The speakers also discussed the strong anti-EU caucus within the UK Conservative Party, noting that over the past two years, euroskepticism has become increasingly mainstream in not only the Parliament, but throughout the country. Adamson contended that while euroskeptics have not proposed an alternative vision for Britain outside of the EU, UKIP has continued to rise in popularity and its prominence as a powerful third party within the British political system is forcing the Tories to adopt a more anti-EU tone out of fear of losing votes. Adamson commented that while UKIP is now a force to be reckoned with, it has yet to come under the same scrutiny as mainstream political parties.
The speakers also discussed how Britain might renegotiate a deal with the EU, and possible scenarios for domestic politics and Brussels-level agreements. While both Sir Michael and Adamson agreed that Cameron is viewed as “unhelpful” among EU leaders, the latter acknowledged that as a byproduct of dealing with rising euroskepticism, Cameron has been successful at initiating an important debate on reform in the EU. Sir Michael reflected on David Cameron’s European stance over the past few years, noting that such “posturing” was due to pressure from the UKIP and the euroskeptic backbenchers of his own party. Sir Michael also mentioned the key role that Germany would play if the UK attempts to repatriate certain powers. He noted that while Cameron will need the support of Chancellor Angela Merkel, he has taken steps to alienate her and other potential allies in the past few years.
The discussion further touched on the reaction of British business and media to these developments, as well as what British withdrawal might actually entail. A question-and-answer period followed. The informal dialogue was on-the-record and was attended by members of the think-tank, government, and diplomatic communities.