Seismic Activity in British Politics: How Strong Will the Aftershocks Be Across Europe?
First UKIP MP, Douglas Carswell, with UKIP leader, Nigel Farage
A political drama was played out in a small theatre in an English seaside town in the early hours of Friday morning. No doubt Shakespeare, Goethe or even Molière might have been tempted to pen a work as UKIP – Britain’s eurosceptic party – won its first seat in the House of Commons and thereby made British political history.
With UKIP as Britain’s largest political party in the European Parliament (24 MEPs); and with the party’s leader, the media-savvy Nigel Farage, now making noises about potentially holding the balance of power in the UK after next year’s general election (an optimistic claim made perhaps in the dizzy high of a 12,404 majority win), what does Thursday 9th October 2014 mean for the UK’s relationship with the European Union?
UKIP’s stated aim is to remove Britain from the EU – and without a referendum. One of its core policies is much tougher control on EU immigration. And yet during the election campaign in Clacton, very little if any mention seems to have been made of these central tenets.
Much has already been said and written about the impact of UKIP’s win in Clacton – and its very tight second place in Heywood and Middleton – on the British political landscape.
It seems clear that all the main British parties are likely to harden up their language about Europe and become more Eurosceptic (a point not lost in some of the coverage of Clacton in the European press).
But how will this impact on Britain’s position in the EU and David Cameron’s efforts to reform the club of 28 ahead of a probable UK in-out referendum in 2017?
Other European countries look across the Channel at Britain’s political story with a mixture of bemusement, wonder and irritation.
Britain is one of the few island nations of the EU. As such its citizens (or ‘subjects’, to be precise) often find it difficult to relate to the history of the founding member states (Germany, France, Italy, The Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg), where centuries of fluid national boundaries, mass migration and cross-border integration are part of the very fabric of the modern incarnations of these countries.
The EU has for years dealt with (there are those who would say ‘put up with’) Britain’s ‘differentness’. The UK has often been granted opt-outs from EU laws and is not part of the single currency or the EU’s passport-free zone known as Schengen.
In an internet age where every European citizen and British subject can scrutinise rules and regulations signed off in Brussels (jointly negotiated by ministers from every member state), grass-roots movements and parties are now emerging in several EU countries – not just in the UK – calling for fewer ‘Brussels rules and regulations’.
France’s right-wing Front National topped the polls in France in this May’s European Parliamentary elections; Italy’s 5-Star Movement gained ground in the same poll and is, like UKIP, calling for an end to the domination of politics by the traditional political class; and even in Germany the Alternative für Deutschland party is proving an irritation to the ruling coalition, calling for a more exclusive and smaller Eurozone. But it’s also true that UKIP is the most politically successful of these eurosceptic and EU-reformer parties and is now clearly the largest thorn in the side of any member state government.
The British Prime Minister, David Cameron – and, for that matter, the leader of the British opposition Labour Party, Ed Miliband – now has to tread a very thin line. He needs to broaden his message in order to appeal to those voters who this week crossed over to UKIP – in other words he will become more eurosceptic. At the same time he needs to try to keep on side the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, and the EU Commission President Designate, Jean-Claude Juncker, both of whom have made it clear they want the UK to remain in the EU club – but not at any price. The next few months will be all about distinguishing between those messages intended for a home audience and those intended for wider EU consumption. (Presumably Lord Hill, the UK’s new Commissioner in Brussels, had discussed this very issue with David Cameron when he confidently told his confirmation hearing in Brussels this week that Britain would vote ‘no’ to any referendum on leaving the EU.)
It’s worth looking at the priorities already set out by Mr Juncker for his 5-year term in office as President of the European Commission.
Priority number 5 on his list of 5 is to “give an answer to the British question”. He says he will “work for a fair deal with Britain – a deal that accepts the specificities of the UK in the EU”. He says he knows that Britain will never become a member of the Schengen area. He acknowledges that Mr Cameron has recently set out a list of further demands (presumably it would be a sign of panic if the UK Prime Minister were to add to this list in the wake of this week’s by-election results) and says he will be happy to talk to the Prime Minister about these “in a fair and reasonable manner”. But he points out that his red line in such talks would be the integrity of the Single Market and its four freedoms: free movement of goods; free movement for workers; right of establishment and freedom to provide services; free movement of capital. David Cameron is a fan of the Single Market.
Mr Juncker has also set out a 5-point plan on immigration. In this he talks about the following:
— implementing the Common European Asylum System, designed to create a level playing field for asylum to the EU and prevent one member state’s rules being more or less favourable than those of another;
— stepping up the practical assistance provided by the European Asylum Support Office, whose role it is to support member states ‘under particular pressure’;
— stepping up cooperation with third countries, particularly those in North Africa, by which he means providing more support to people in those countries in order that they feel less compelled to leave their native lands;
— greater political determination when it comes to legal migration, which is about stopping illegal and life-threatening methods of immigration;
— and securing Europe’s borders to prevent the uncontrolled influx of illegal immigrants (this relates to Europe’s external borders, not borders between member states).
Mr Juncker, Dr Merkel, President Hollande and others will clearly be watching the UKIP effect closely – not least in terms of how it plays out in the UK’s general election next May. Commentators are already pointing out that UKIP’s impetus means it is hard to dismiss the movement as simply one of protest.
Under the British first-past-the-post electoral system – which is tough on smaller parties – the key issue will be to see if UKIP’s current wave of popularity really can translate into a respectable number of MPs in the next parliament. The question will then be to what extent UKIP can either play the power broker; or even, as he has already quipped, if Nigel Farage can demand the job of Britain’s Europe Minister….!
Somewhere in the maths of next May will be the answer to the degree to which Mr Cameron or Mr Miliband and Mr Juncker can debate, negotiate and reform. And at that point we will see just how wide open the door to a potential Brexit really is.
UKIP’s leader, Nigel Farage, has already described this week’s UK by-elections as an earthquake in the British political landscape. As the sea of journalists and party workers moves out of Clacton this weekend, there will be those asking if the wave of UKIP purple and yellow washing inexorably towards Rochester in Kent, the location of the next British by election, will inevitably grow into a tsunami.