U.K. Elections & EU Integration

Britain’s government could be in for considerable change on May 6, but will its attitude towards the EU change with it?

News | Justin McCauley | May 2010

The upcoming U.K. election is turning out to be the most exciting Britain has seen in decades. After 13 years of Labour rule – with the impact of the Iraq War, the economic recession and parliamentary expense scandals – the possibility of a sea change in British politics is real.

The most obvious political shift has been the meteoric rise of Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg. Early on, most polls and political analysts predicted a fairly secure victory for David Cameron and the Conservative Party. Many in Britain have been discontented for quite some time now. On top of the other issues, Prime Minister Gordon Brown just isn’t that likeable. Britons have grown weary of the Labour Party; many have felt let down by Tony Blair and the New Labour movement and perceive Brown’s leadership over the last three years as inept. Cameron has been campaigning for years, and seemed poised to lead a Tory landslide.

Enter Nick Clegg, the formidable leader of the Liberal Democrats, the third party in British politics. Founded in 1988, the Lib Dems helped constitute what became the U.K.’s "two-and-a-half" party system, with Labour and the Tories as the heavyweights and the Lib Dems as a middleweight voice to consider. This status quo has persisted until now, with Clegg’s active leadership catapulting the party to a near equal footing with Conservative and Labour.

Clegg has been helped by the advent of live television debates – something commonplace in the United States, but unheard of in Britain – which he has used to paint himself as the reformer, while labeling both Brown and Cameron as out of date. Indeed, some in the media, such as The Guardian’s Richard Adams, have called Clegg "Britain’s Obama" – the youthful ‘change’ candidate.

An interesting turn of events, to be sure. But don’t expect to see a Prime Minister Nick Clegg any time soon. With Britain’s first-past-the-post electoral system, it is unlikely that the Lib Dems, with supporters dispersed throughout the U.K., will trump the Conservatives or Labour bases, heavily concentrated in geographical regions.

But Clegg’s popularity is more than enough to change the nature of any future government. What seems to be the most popular prediction now is the emergence of a hung parliament – i.e. a parliament where no party has an outright majority. This would mean the prime minister would try to form a minority government, making the Lib Dems the obvious choice for either as coalition partner. This development could have long-term consequences, and change the British "two-and-a-half" party system into a full-fledged three-party system.

Systems analysis aside, what would these candidates mean for the future of Britain? In the debates, Brown and Cameron offered the usual party platitudes on spending – the former talking about less government spending cuts, the latter about less government spending. Clegg focused on what kind of spending, as opposed to simple numbers. Immigration is another key domestic issue, again with Clegg sounding like the most innovative of the three. Cameron supports a cap on immigration, whereas both Brown and Clegg do not; Clegg goes a step further though, emphasizing systemic alterations to foster "good immigration." Electoral reform is also paramount, with all three agreeing that the cost of politics must be cut, and that the House of Lords needs to be reformed.

But what effect – if any – will this historic election have on Britain’s approach to European integration? Clegg, a former member of the European Parliament, is staunchly pro-integration, and supports greater British involvement in the European Union, including such measures as a British adoption of the euro.  Conversely, Cameron is the most Euro-skeptic British leader in years, with CNN political analyst Robert Oakley comparing his visceral anti-integration stance to Margaret Thatcher’s. Furthermore, Clegg, in the second debate, attacked Cameron for withdrawing from the mainstream European People’s Party and aligning the Tories with the European Conservatives and Reformists, a "bunch of nutters, anti-Semites, people who deny climate change exists, homophobes…this doesn’t help Britain." Brown for his part is somewhat a skeptic as well, but Labour’s policy regarding integration has been that of reluctant co-operation, provided the U.K. receives various opt-outs.

With this disparity of views, one would expect differing EU policies. Ultimately though, this is not likely.

"Labour has been part of European Realpolitik," Dr. Johannes Pollak, a European integration expert and Senior Research Professor at Webster University Vienna, told The Vienna Review, pointing out that the ruling party has co-operated considerably, if tacitly, with the EU. The British government, whether Labour or Conservative, has been consistently Euro-skeptical since they joined the Union in 1973. Pragmatism and utility have often dictated the U.K.’s more integrationist moves, and circumstance will likely continue to drive these decisions. "The British economy," Pollak continued, "is desperate for the Euro," and the U.K.’s "special relationship" with the U.S. does not suffice economically. Nationalist calls for Britain leaving the EU would be "catastrophic for the British economy."

All this points to a co-operative – if grudging – British government, regardless of the victor.  "Cameron’s going to soften [towards the EU]," Pollak asserted. "There’s a difference between campaigns and Realpolitik." In the event of a Conservative Party victory, said Dr. Bob Hancké, Reader in European Political Economy at the London School of Economics, Britain’s EU approach would not change "all that much." Becoming more belligerently anti-Europe would bear little fruit, he told The Vienna Review. "What could really change for the U.K.? Not in the Economic Monetary Union, and [the U.K.] has won [opt-outs] in the most important fields."

And Clegg and the Lib Dems? How will their success and possible inclusion in a coalition government affect EU relations?

"We’ll see," said Hancké. "A hung parliament or a coalition first, then see what the Lib Dems ask for, and whether Europe is top of their list. I suspect that Europe will not be a central issue. Electoral reform is."

Ultimately, as Pollak points out, the election will determine how Britain acts within the EU more than towards it. "Lots of people are afraid [Cameron will] pull the national card," meaning the Tories will fight for more U.K. opt-outs. The outcome of the election will also affect British actions in the European Parliament and the European Council. Pollak forecasts some conflict over EU policies towards Turkey and Eastern Europe with a Cameron victory. But, contrary to some predictions, Britain is unlikely to do anything drastic, such as leave the Union.

So, in spite of an exhilarating election campaign and the rise of a powerhouse third party, Britain’s policies towards Europe will remain as they have always been. Domestic policy will no doubt be overhauled, but regarding Europe, populism and pragmatism will rule the day. Clegg will likely have to tame his integrationist stance as much as Cameron will his Euro-skeptic stance, to appease a British electorate that sees the utility of the EU but fancies themselves separate from "the Continent."

Slow but steady conformity with the integration project is likely to continue, for as Pollak concludes, "there’s no real alternative for the Brits."

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