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Britain and Europe – The UK Coalition Government and Europe

David Cameron had sought, as part of his attempt to modernise the Conservative Party, to downplay the European issue, because it had been divisive and had appeared to produce no electoral advantage in the last four general elections and instead develop other areas of policy.

In office, however, he was faced with the problem of a pro-European Liberal Democrat Party on one wing of the Coalition and a strongly Eurosceptic Group of Conservative MPs on the other.  The existence of the Coalition accentuated the desire of Conservative to raise the issue.  From their point of view, Cameron was making too many concessions to the Liberal Democrats in a range of areas and William Hague, as Foreign Secretary, was too conciliatory in his statements on Europe and so they looked to have some influence on a subject that they and their party members saw as important.

Both Cameron and Hague ruled out having a referendum on whether to stay in the EU during 2011 but pressure from Conservative backbenchers and competition from UKIP, grew significantly between 2011 and 2015. This pushed him into a different position for the 2015 General Election where the Conservative manifesto promised an In/Out Referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU. Over 4 million people voted for UKIP in the 2015 election and when returned to power true to his word a referendum was scheduled for 23rd June 2016. On that day millions of people voted and the result was to leave.

Backbenchers and Europe

Backbenchers have also been using Parliament to express their disapproval of Europe:-

  • In October 81 Conservative backbenchers defied Government whips to vote for a motion on a referendum
  • John Baron took a letter to the Prime Minister in June 2012 signed by over 100 Conservative MPs asking for an Act of Parliament before 2015 requiring an in-out referendum in the next Parliament
  • The Government had called for a real terms freeze of the EU budget but in October a Labour amendment to make a real-terms cut was supported by 53 Conservative MPs and the Government was defeated
  • In January 2013 Cameron made a commitment to holding a referendum by 2017 but only after Britain had renegotiated the terms of its membership with the EU
  • In May 2013 James Wharton introduced a Private Member’s Bill to hold the referendum by 2017. The Liberal Democrats had prevented the Government itself from introducing such a Bill, although the Conservative Party has published a draft Bill. Despite hostility from No 10, Adam Afriyie put down an amendment to Wharton’s Bill to bring the referendum forward to 2014.
  • In May 2013 115 Conservative MPs rebelled to support an amendment regretting no mention of a referendum in the Queen’s Speech. Labour did not support the amendment and so it was defeated.

Responding to Trouble on the Continent

If Europe had been quiet over the last three years then it might not have been such a problem for Cameron.  The Treaty of Lisbon was already decided and no other integration proposals were on the horizon.

The Government had passed legislation to require a referendum on any new treaties but none seemed likely. However, the Euro crisis changed that and Britain soon found it was involved in helping to finance the bail out of the Republic of Ireland, to the concern of Conservative backbenchers.  There was also an unprecedented migration crisis with hundreds of thousands of refugees and economic migrants making the journey to Europe.

In response to the Eurozone problems, France and Germany pushed for economic policy integration to prevent the difficulties occurring again and, by the end of 2011, had proposed a new fiscal treaty.

Cameron began negotiations for Britain to be involved and talked about a referendum on the new treaty after the 2010 general election, with Clegg softening the negotiating stance, but, at the final meeting in January 2012, was unable or unwilling to reach any compromise over the arrangements for the City and financial services and the UK and the Czech Republic were the only countries, inside or outside of the Eurozone, not to sign.

Clegg kept quiet but Lord Ashdown said that, “the foreign policy priorities of this country for the past 40 years have gone down the plughole in a single night”.

****This page is under review following the UK’s decision to leave the European Union and Brexit process****