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The UK Independence Party: Euroskeptics Rattle Cameron

The town of Eastleigh, in southeast England, doesn’t normally make national news. It’s old, but not antique. It was once known for its railroad industrial works that built powerful steam locomotives with names like King Arthur. But that was in the early twentieth century. Today, it’s more of a dormitory town for larger, nearby cities like Southampton and Winchester. In March of this year, however, Eastleigh (population 120,700) dominated the political headlines and provided a preview of things to come, following a parliamentary by-election whose result seriously rattled the mainstream parties, particularly the governing Conservatives.

Eastleigh is a Liberal Democrat safe seat, and the minority party in the ruling coalition held onto it in the by-election. But the real victory belonged to the right-wing, nationalist UK Independence Party (UKIP), which opposes membership of the European Union and wants to curb immigration. Their candidate beat the Tory candidate for second place and siphoned off votes from the Liberal Democrats, reducing their previous lead. The opposition Labor Party trailed a poor fourth, as expected.

The Independence Party has been steadily building a following over the past two years, but political commentators say the Eastleigh result gave it a significant bump just in time for England’s local elections, on May 5th, for just under twenty-four hundred seats on twenty-seven local (county) councils. The party won one hundred and thirty-nine seats, up from just seven seats in the 2009 election, and garnered twenty-five percent of the vote—badly bruising the Conservative Party of Prime Minister David Cameron, which lost three hundred and eighty-seven seats, and the Liberal Democrats, which shed one hundred and twenty-four. As Independence gains piled up, the political editor of the BBC declared, “This is the day UKIP emerged as a real political force in the land.”

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The outcome of the May voting was a shock to the established parties and has focused even more attention on UKIP’s leader, Nigel Farage, a British member of the European Parliament, described by a Guardian newspaper columnist as “the bloke in the pub that’s the life and soul of the party,” a reference to his flashy personality. Farage called his party’s gains “a real sea change in British politics” and a decisive step in the Independence bid for a foothold in the Westminster Parliament in the next general elections, scheduled for 2015 (the party currently has no House of Commons seats).

UKIP was founded in 1993 at a meeting held at the London School of Economics with the aim of opposing the Maastricht Treaty, the historic agreement on which European integration is based. So far, UKIP has scored its biggest success in European Parliamentary elections. By 2009, it had thirteen seats in the European Parliament, and had pushed the British Labor Party into third place, and the Liberal Democrats into fourth. To broaden its appeal, it has moved from a single-issue party and now campaigns against government plans to develop wind turbines, legalize same-sex marriage, and ban smoking in pubs, and in favor of a significant increase in spending on defense and the British armed forces, which Farage says successive governments have allowed to become run-down to dangerous levels.

But the Independence Party’s anti-Europe position remains its biggest selling point. Exit polls after the May election showed more than fifty percent of those who voted for UKIP did so because they shared Farage’s core objective of wanting to lead Britain out of the European Union. Around forty-five percent said they agreed that the UK should freeze all immigration. With UK unemployment at 7.8 percent, immigrants from poorer EU countries are perceived as a threat.

 

This is not the first time that the UK membership in the twenty-seven-nation European Union has caused unrest in the country’s internal politics. UKIP gains are a challenge for Prime Minister Cameron’s own efforts to re-balance Britain’s links with the European Union. He has tried to co-opt the Independence Party’s adroit use of this issue by admitting that changes are necessary and acknowledging that public disappointment with the EU is at “an all time high.”

But the battle lines remain clear. In a recent BBC interview, Cameron said abandoning the EU membership altogether would not be “right for Britain,” even though the eurozone crisis has forced changes in the EU, and Britain must assess its relationship. At the same time, he also said “the Conservatives will be offering at the next election a real choice and a real way of giving consent to that choice.” That was a reference to his recent promise of an in-out referendum on whether Britain should stay in the European Union following the next elections.

In 2011, a proposal to hold such a referendum was defeated in the House of Commons by four hundred and eighty-three votes to one hundred and eleven. At least eighty-one Conservative members voted in favor—in defiance of Cameron’s instructions to oppose it. It’s a measure of how far Cameron has been pushed to the right that the prime minister now backs a new referendum proposal. He is under double pressure from the Independence Party and rebellious Tory MPs—the so-called “Euroskeptics”—who together are dominating the political debate.

In the panic over May’s local election results and what they could mean for prospects of beating Labor in 2015, a group of Conservative MPs have called on the prime minister to give the public absolute certainty about his intentions regarding Europe by not waiting for two years to start the referendum process. They want the government to hold a “mandate” referendum in 2014 that would give Cameron the authority to negotiate a new deal with the European Union. The already promised referendum on whether to remain in the EU would then follow in the next parliament, based on the renegotiated UK-EU arrangement. This, they hope, would undermine Nigel Farage’s central platform of taking Britain out of Europe altogether, which they regard as the UKIP’s main attraction. Said Home Secretary Theresa May, “What we need to do is to be able to show people that we will hold that referendum after the general election.”

European politicians believe Cameron is genuine in not wanting to pull out of the EU altogether—a move that most agree would damage the British economy and have unfathomable political repercussions. They recognize that the government’s commitment to a referendum gives him added leverage when he comes to the negotiating table. Yet there is also doubt about whether Cameron has a clear idea of what kind of relationship he envisions with the EU because so much of what he says on the issue is intended to score points on the domestic political front.

It’s no secret, however, that he wants Brussels to agree to tighter immigration controls (so that people would not “come and live in Britain and claim benefits,” as he put it), more leeway in adopting European court decisions, and the abolition of the EU’s Working Time Directive, which imposes a maximum working week of forty-eight hours and four weeks of paid vacation per year—and which Cameron says “should never have been introduced.” Cameron says a new EU must be based on five principles: competitiveness, flexibility, democratic accountability, fairness, and power flowing back to, not just away from, member states.

The UK did not sign the Schengen Agreement, allowing free movement in the EU without passports for its citizens, but does permit Europeans from signatory states to enter the country and seek employment. As for the European Courts of Justice, Britain is not the only member state that is sometimes reluctant to adopt its rulings as is mandatory throughout the EU, although the British have never yet refused to comply with a decision.

On the EU side, impatience with British demands, led by Germany, is growing. Observers in Brussels say Britain’s influence in European affairs is at an all-time low, and that Cameron’s timing in throwing down the British gauntlet couldn’t be worse. With the eurozone struggling to resolve its complex financial problems, the prospect of a British departure is not a top concern. “Once the thought of the UK leaving was seen as the beginning of the end for the European Union,” an EU official said in a recent phone conversation. “Today, there are other more dangerous potential beginnings of the end for the EU, and the UK leaving is not one of them.”

According to the German weekly Der Spiegel, “German diplomats are currently trying to convince their British counterparts” that Britain can’t “pick and choose which EU laws and regulations benefit (their) country.” German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle recently conceded that “not all and everything must be decided in Brussels and by Brussels,” but added, in an obvious allusion to Britain, that “cherry picking is not an option.”

 

David Cameron was seven years old in 1973, when Britain was finally admitted to the European Economic Community (precursor of the European Union). The issue was finally resolved after years of intense effort by successive Conservative governments to become part of the evolving idea of “Europe.” Tory Prime Minister Harold Macmillan’s greatest regret was his failure to break down French resistance to Britain’s entry into the EEC. On two occasions—in 1963 and again in 1967—Charles de Gaulle had blocked the British application for membership, in part because he regarded Britain as a Trojan horse for US interests, but also because of French fears that the English language would swamp Europe. Edward Heath, the Conservative prime minister who finally took the UK into Europe, always considered bringing the negotiations to a satisfactory end his greatest achievement.

But as European integration plans progressed and the power of Brussels grew, so did British suspicion of European intentions. That suspicion found a champion in Margaret Thatcher, who was quick to challenge EU decisions when she thought they were against Britain’s interests. The ideal of Britain as an island nation, proud and powerful, answerable to nobody—and certainly not to Eurocrats—is part of her legacy.

Immigration, too, the other side of the integration coin, has a history of sowing dissent in British party politics. In 1968, Enoch Powell, a leading Tory Party member, delivered his famous “Rivers of Blood” speech warning the government that its policy of allowing entry to fifty thousand relatives of post-colonial immigrants from the subcontinent and Africa would lead to racial unrest. “Like the Roman, I seem to see the River Tiber foaming with much blood,” Powell declared. He was dismissed from the party for alleged racist views, but workers staged protest demonstrations in his support.

Today, the inescapable fact is that the UK is a multiracial society, and the invading hordes are not from Africa or South Asia, but Europe itself. The EU enlargement of 2004 resulted in a wave of immigrants from Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia, Lithuania, and other East European and Baltic states to the more prosperous Western countries, including the UK, in search of work. According to a report published last year, there were more than one million immigrants from these areas living in the UK. The Independence Party has made inroads by warning that the number would increase exponentially starting on January 1, 2014, once Romania and Bulgaria also sign the EU’s Schengen Agreement.

Following the shock of the local vote in early May, Cameron—who once described the Independence Party as being filled with “fruitcakes, loonies, and closet racists,” and said its membership included “some pretty odd people”—was promising “to do more” to win back defectors who had bolted from his own Conservative Party to support UKIP. “Look, I understand why some people who’ve supported us before didn’t support us again,” he said in a BBC interview. “They want us to do even more, to work for hard-working people, to sort out the issues they care about, more to help with the cost of living, more to turn the economy around, more to get immigration down, to sort out the welfare system.”

In vowing to do better, Cameron was identifying growing support for the Independence Party as a protest vote against his coalition’s performance to date. But others see UKIP as a broader populist rebellion against the mainstream democratic system, similar to Italian comedian Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement, the Tea Party in the United States, or the anti-Islamic, anti-Gypsy Front National in France. Unlike Grillo, however, UKIP leader Nigel Farage is no temporary phenomenon, but a seasoned, full-time politician who was first elected to the European Parliament in 1999. At the EU he has a reputation for irreverence. (He once yelled at EU Council President Herman Van Rompuy, “You have the charisma of a damp rag.”) His publicly stated opinion of Prime Minister Cameron is not much higher: he has referred to him as the “so-called prime minister” and observed that “traditional Tory voters look at Cameron and they ask themselves, ‘Is he a Conservative?’ and they conclude ‘No, he’s not.’” Farage, who has survived an automobile accident, a plane crash, and a bout with cancer, says he loves Europe (his wife is German): “My enemy is the British political class, who have signed us up for [the European Union] without ever telling us the truth.”

Doing well in council elections is a long way from gaining seats in the national Parliament. That may or may not come. But Farage has succeeded in one important respect: He has forced the EU referendum issue to the forefront of the political debate in the UK. “The genie is out of the bottle,” he says.  “Once the ‘out’ word is used, it’s hard to put it back.” 

Roland Flamini is a freelance journalist and former foreign correspondent and bureau chief for Time magazine in Europe, the Middle East, and elsewhere.

Photo Credit: Ian Roberts

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