First things first, opinion polls failed miserably. After several weeks and months forecasting head-to-head results, the Conservatives elected almost 100 MPs more than Labour (despite a similar number of votes, particularities of a first-past-the-post system).
Secondly, while the Tories’ victory will keep the prospect of an In/Out referendum and even the possibility of the UK leaving the EU (the so-called “Brexit”) in the agenda, the worst-case scenario may seem more distant than the most pessimistic assessments are saying.
Cameron essentially promised to renegotiate certain competences back to the UK (followed by a referendum if this does not happen) for mostly electoral reasons – vote for me in 2015 and you might get a saying whether we stay or leave, that was the core of his message.
This opened a can of worms, as UKIP started to attract more anti-EU voters claiming Cameron’s promise was a lie, some Conservatives became more vocal in their opposition to the UK’s membership of the EU and the May 2014 European Parliament election gave a huge boost to the UKIP’s anti-EU rhetoric. Yesterday’s results though showed that UKIP is electing a maximum of 2 MPs (despite having received almost four million votes, again particularities of the first past the post system) which means the UKIP threat is out, at least until 2020.
Yes, David Cameron will try to get some competences back from the EU and we could again witness breakdowns of European Council meetings, followed by moments of glorious ‘un-glory’ (I know this word doesn’t actually exist) with the British PM saying he’s won a victory for Britain, when in reality it just resulted in his country getting sidelined again. The emphasis here is on “try”, as the EU leadership already stated that changing the Treaty is out of the question. Nevertheless, this doesn’t mean nothing is out of reach, as the UK is not the only one who wants to change certain EU policies. The UK will not obtain 100% of what it wants – we don’t know what that is just yet and I’m not sure David Cameron knows either – but it won’t walk out empty-handed either, as Juncker himself has said he’s interested in getting a fair deal for the UK.
As for the referendum, it’s unlikely it would get the UK out of the EU. Cameron may have called it as an electoral tactic but he’s fully aware of the enormous and expensive burocratic work that leaving the EU would imply. While there is a wing of the Conservative Party that would rather see the UK getting out, the overall pro-business stance of the Conservative Party means that bringing forth the possibility of a “Brexit” would risk throwing the British economy into a period of instability, as there would have to be a renegotiation with the EU regarding market access and British industries would most likely still have to follow EU standards on many different areas. As anti-EU as some Conservatives might feel, this does not mean their supporters in the City and elsewhere around the UK would benefit from a British departure. Within the UK, the common narrative against the EU says that European burocracy is a burden on British companies but even this is very far from consensual.
What further reinforces the idea that this referendum promise is nothing but simple electoralism is the review of the balance of competences, called precisely by the Cameron government. This review did not find any area of policy in which the EU exerts an overwhelming domination over the UK and does not advocate for any policy area to be returned from the EU to the British government. As this did not fit the Conservatives’ view that the UK needs to review its EU membership, this survey has not been highlighted by the very same government that called it.
Recent opinion polls don’t even show a favourable trend towards leaving the EU and while polls may have failed in forecasting the result of this General Election, a referendum would not be based on a first-past-the-post system, which makes it a much safer ground to predict.
What is the big problem then? Cameron is not the most competent individual at making calculations – the Conservatives’ result at last year’s European Parliament elections show just that – and if the electoral front seems shaky, it’s quite possible that he will find himself promising something unattainable, only to find that the only solution is further disengagement from the EU. This could be what some have called “sleepwalking out of the EU”.
More relevant than that is the prospect of Scotland, or rather its MPs (which are now nearly-all from the Scottish National Party), potentially becoming more and more distant from the UK . Not getting into too much speculation, but some already claim that Scotland is now the pro-EU stronghold of the UK and it doesn’t seem incorrect at all to point out that a UK without Scotland is much more likely to walk out of the EU. While last year’s referendum may have failed to produce a sovereign Scotland, a growing polarization within the UK could bring the topic back into the agenda and lead to greater pressure towards Scottish sovereignty.
With all that being said, the next European Council meeting will be a funny one.