David Cameron hasn’t enjoyed much of his term in office as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. After all, as Prime Minister he’s been raked over the coals (though not as badly as his deputy Nick Clegg) by British students incensed by increased school fees; U-turned on all sorts of taxes; and had to sack his Chief Whip (the one who keeps his MPs voting with the party line) over Plebgate. But now it seems like Cameron wants to finally get working on something significant that can define his legacy. Just as Tony Blair is always associated with Iraq, David Cameron is probably gambling that his latest speech on the European Union (EU) will be a massive hit — and not a gigantic flop.
For those unfamiliar with the British-EU problem, it is like a romance gone wrong. One can imagine Britain as one of the EU’s many wives — and possibly the most disgruntled wife — who resents EU interference in her policies, viewing it as an attempt to undermine her sovereignty. This is an analogy that Eurosceptics (British politicians who immensely distrust the EU) would embrace as they argue for leaving the EU. It does not help that the EU has recently suffered a major economic crisis that has nearly crippled the entire continent (except the UK which barely escaped by not having adopted a common Euro currency). Not all British citizens like the idea of a European Court of Human Rights passing judgment over British criminal issues either.
If the marriage is as bad as the Eurosceptics describe, why has the marriage lasted for decades? It’s because of the money and trade opportunities that a relationship with the EU supposedly brings, benefiting many British businessmen like Sir Richard Branson of Virgin, who unsurprisingly wants the UK to stay within the EU. Some also argue that the marriage must be maintained or face isolationism and damage to Britain’s security interests.
However, Prime Minister Cameron has now decided that he wants to renegotiate the entrance and membership terms of Britain in the EU. Cameron hopes to reclaim British sovereignty and power but without having to exit the European Union. However, Cameron’s decision to call for a referendum after the next election (presuming he will be elected into power), has attracted both praise and criticism.
Praise comes from the Eurosceptics who believe that Cameron’s speech would appease the British people (many of whom are obviously unhappy about the EU’s current dismal situation) and a tactical move in preparation for the next General Election. Cameron appealing to the Eurosceptics is seen as a ploy to divert votes away from the UK Independence Party, his Conservative Party’s right-wing challenger.
Cameron’s move is going to face opposition. Cameron’s conservatives are in a hung parliament (no majority in the parliament) and thus have to keep faith with their coalition partner, the Liberal Democrats, in order to form the government. However Nick Clegg’s Lib Dems are fiercely pro-European, and Clegg, whose party’s electoral chances are as good as the tories’ in 1997, has decided to criticize his coalition partner, claiming that the plan is “implausible”.
Furthermore, the bureaucrats in Brussels are unlikely to welcome an “a la carte” approach to entering the EU. If Britain goes ahead with this entrance plan, some argue that every other country would want to enter the EU on its own varied terms, and the concept of European Unity or even a European common market would be meaningless.
Cameron himself is likely to face the wrath of his pro-European backbenchers. Europe has always been a divisive issue for both Labour and especially the Conservatives. Cameron might even face a vote of no confidence if he pushes forward his Eurosceptic policies. Expect backbencher or even frontline rebellions similar to those that eventually booted Margaret Thatcher out of office.
So with all these considerations, will David Cameron eventually give up taking on Europe on his terms? Not likely, as Cameron himself already cleverly timed the referendum to be held on condition that he win a second term. And for now, he just might, with Ed Miliband’s Labour not doing exceptionally well in opposition. Hence, Cameron may have bought enough time to convince his party and the public to support him.
Nick Clegg himself would not want to risk sinking the coalition government by openly revolting against Cameron. There’s little benefit for him to violently disagree with Cameron over Europe, destroying the alliance only to see himself possibly ousted as leader of the Lib Dems at the next general election.
Pro-EU backbenchers might spark a revolt, but it would be much more contained. Cameron is no Margaret Thatcher, and his cabinet ministers by and large have shown no sign of a revolt or an en masse resignation over Europe. Most of the Conservatives also know that David Cameron is currently the best bet for leading them in the next election. Apart from William Hague, few others can match Cameron’s charisma, popularity and ability to outshine the youthful Ed Miliband.
Judging from these circumstances, David Cameron will push ahead with his less compliant Euro policies, and so we can all expect a rough few years ahead for Anglo-European relations.