British Eurosceptics have gone into overdrive at the apparent inevitability of British exit from the EU or the ‘Brexit’ as it has been labelled. This narrative of the irreparable fracture between Britain and the EU came to fruition when David Cameron announced that he would hold a referendum on future British participation in the EU between 2015 and 2017. The predominant expectation is that the mass Europhobia gripping the British will unleash itself in a decisive vote to remove Britain from the EU.
There are two points that challenge this narrative that are worth reflecting on. Firstly, although British public opinion is clearly negative toward the EU, the British public place a very low salience on the European issue. Quite simply they do not care about Europe. Data from the polling company Ipsos-Mori in their issues facing Britain index reveals this. Despite strong media engagement on the issue, the convulsions it has caused in the Conservative Party, only 9% of British citizens listed Europe as an issue of concern. With the British economy entering a triple dip recession and its valued AAA credit rating status lost, ordinary Britons are fixated on the state of the economy (51% list it as the most important issues facing the country), not on British-EU relations. Moreover, as data from Yougov shows, there has been a significant shift towards the pro-European side with 28% favouring staying ‘In’ in May 2012 and 40% January 2013. As Simon Usherwood has noted the calling of a referendum has forced the pro-Europeans into action. The resultant increase in public arguments for Britain staying in the EU has played a key role in this shift in public opinion.
An EU referendum has long been the goal of Eurosceptics, since the Referendum Party who contested the 1997 general election, but its immediate effect has been to finally drag the pro-Europeans out into a public debate. As the academic literature on referendums has repeatedly shown, invariably the side advocating the status quo has the upper hand. If the electorate is divided on an issue then all they have to argue is the uncertainty and negativity a No vote would bring. The side advocating change has to argue the uncertainty and negativity of a Yes vote in addition to their main task of formulating a clear alternative that appeals to the majority. The fundamental problem facing Eurosceptics is that they have yet to clearly articulate what this alternative is. There are vague references to securing a Norwegian and Swiss style relationship with the EU but nothing tangible has emerged. Cameron has talked of securing a renegotiated relationship with the EU as his alternative but last week EU Council President Herman van Rompuy very publicly slapped down that idea. The Open Europe Institute, a well respected Eurocritical think tank, in an extensive analysis of the EU policy choices open to Britain, concluded that negotiating a Norwegian or Swiss style relationship with the EU was simply not an option. Their proposal was for Britain to remain part of the EU and work closely with leading members to achieve key British policy goals.
This leads to the second issue that questions the reality of a Brexit. Prime Minister Cameron knows it is fundamentally not in his or Britain’s interest. If Britain is truly at a precipice then why did Cameron fail to call a referendum for a few months time and end the uncertainty? Surely there has never been a more perfect time for Britain to leave the EU? Cameron himself is an avowed Eurosceptic; his party – and in particular its 2010 intake of MPs – has never been as anti-European; the Eurocrisis has provided formidable evidence of the failures of European integration and in particular the single currency; the print media, almost wholly, support him. Given this litany of positives for him to hold an in/out referendum why did he kick the issue to touch for three years?