This was expressed in the polls as a rise in support for the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) and in Parliament by Prime Minister David Cameron’s promise to re-negotiate the UK’s relationship with the EU followed by a referendum on the new terms. Just months ago, with UKIP having achieved its greatest success in the European elections and with a General Election approaching, the prospect of a British exit (Brexit) from the European Union seemed uncomfortably real.
The General Election taking place this week in the UK is set to be the closest in a generation. Of the major parties, only the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) and Liberal Democrats do not include some form of EU referendum in their manifestos. So should the Brits living and working throughout the EU be eyeing up the residency requirements of their host countries nervously, or is the threat of an in-out referendum all just a storm in a (British) tea cup?
If current polling predictions prove to be accurate, the election on May 7th will deliver the UK a second hung parliament. Most predictions have UKIP winning 3-4 seats at most, and it does not seem possible that the Conservatives will be able to command a majority or cobble together one with the support of UKIP, the Liberal Democrats and the Northern Irish DUP. The most likely government currently seems to be a minority Labour administration propped up by the votes of the SNP and Liberal Democrats. This situation would not exclude an EU referendum, but it does make it far less probable – in addition to the opposition of the smaller parties, Labour only commits to a referendum in the event of a major transfer of powers to Brussels, not something that appears likely in the next five years.
Will simply not having a referendum be enough to make fears of Brexit evaporate though? On the one hand, support for the staying in the European Union was recently put by YouGov at 45%, a lead of +10% over the no camp and the largest since YouGov began polling on this question in 2010. On the other, public support for the EU in the UK has never been solid and not having a referendum would deny the UK a chance to put the question of its EU membership to bed for a generation.
Considering the economic damage that a Brexit could do to both the United Kingdom and also the rest of the European Union, the prospect of putting that off for at least another five years could seem appealing to some. However, this is an issue that will refuse to go away whilst a large proportion of the political establishment are still pushing for it.
It could be the greatest legacy of this election for Britain’s relationship with the EU, is that it allows the pro-EU majority the chance to spend the next 5 years making the case for Britain’s continued involvement in the European Union. Any future referendum would then be far less likely to result in the Brexit that is the fear of so many.