international analysis and commentary

The UK electoral debate: Where is Europe?

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As the UK prepares to go to the polls, candidates are all fired up in their campaigns leading up to the May 7th parliamentary elections.

In the course of the electoral campaign, there are different TV debates on the agenda. The April 16th debate featured the five challengers: Ed Miliband from the Labour party aspiring to become Prime Minister, Natalie Bennett from the Greens, Nigel Farage from the euroskeptic UKIP as well as Leanne Wood from the Welsh socialist Plaid Cymru and Nicola Sturgeon from the Scottish National Party fighting for regional representation in Westminster. The leaders of the coalition, Nick Clegg from the Liberal Democrats and the Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron did not take part for different reasons.

Since Nigel Farage’s party came out on top in last year’s European elections and David Cameron had promised an in-out referendum two years ago, one might have thought that EU membership would rank quite high in the list of topics discussed in the recent debate. The simple fact that there is a debate about the relationship between the United Kingdom on the one hand and the EU on the other, shows that people on the British Isles (and to a certain extent on the continent) do not see the country as fully part of the European project. Whereas in all the bigger European countries there is hardly any debate at all about whether they should be part of the EU, let alone hold a referendum on their EU-membership, this issue has been consistently raised in the British media and in political circles throughout recent years.

Therefore, Europeans might be concerned whether the outcome of the upcoming parliamentary elections would result in any change with regards to the UK’s relationship with the European Union. Yet, those expecting heated arguments against or in favor of more commitment to the EU as part of the televised debate were in for a disappointment. The only one jumping on the issue of EU membership was UKIP leader Nigel Farage. He did so at every appropriate and non-appropriate opportunity, whether the question was related to housing, the National Health Service or the job market. It was remarkable to see how the only one passionate about the topic was someone who could not leave the EU soon enough. When asked about potential cooperation with other parties in a hung parliament after the elections, he categorically ruled out Labour arguing that unlike the Conservatives, they refuse to hold a referendum on EU membership. After insisting that this is the only reason he would not sit down with Miliband for potential coalition talks, it became clear that UKIP is the only party that has the question of EU membership as one of its priorities.

Miliband’s reply – “It would be disastrous to leave the EU” – sounded rather lukewarm and rehearsed than a passionate commitment to shared values and policies with Britain’s European partners. Being aware that Britain needs the EU and is better off within the bloc than outside, he did not back up his case with further evidence.

One of the few points Miliband and Farage seemed to agree on was the rejection of a European army. This idea had been suggested – again, as a periodic sticking point of European integration – by the EU Commission’s President Jean-Claude Juncker a month ago. Whereas the proposal was formally welcomed by high officials in Germany and in other member states, it certainly challenges Britain’s traditional understanding of defense policy. As this is a key symbol of national sovereignty, giving up powers on such a sensitive domain would certainly go against the UK’s idea of an independent and more flexible national military.

Whilst the UKIP leader was trying to put Miliband on the spot challenging him on the issue, the Labour leader tried to dismiss these accusations, ruling out any British involvement with a joint European defense force. However, both Farage and Miliband know that in case Labour succeeds in forming a government, at the European intergovernmental level they will have to cooperate within the EU mechanisms. UKIP on the other hand, will be in a more comfortable position, being able to continue to accuse pro-European policies and claim back more national control.

The fact that none of the other participants spoke out in favor of the EU’s free movement of people and a UK committed to a closely integrated European future, proved that the four panelists to the left of Farage knew that would not win them any extra points with their potential voters.

In fact, the most recent YouGov poll shows that the “European question” only comes in 7th in terms of priorities for British voters. Most of them are more concerned about the future of the National Health Service, housing, education or cuts in the welfare system. What is even more remarkable is that among UKIP voters, “Europe” only came 6th when asked about the most important issues facing them personally.

However, the “immigration” issue, linked to the EU’s free movement of people, comes up as a separate topic and has been attracting more attention throughout the past years. Therefore, it should be fair to say that Britons are concerned with the effects of immigration in their everyday lives, but are not necessarily keen on the debate about EU membership.

In any case, it is likely that the issue of Europe will be raised at the next, and probably final, debate on BBC Question Time at the end of April. That program will only feature David Cameron, Ed Milliband and Nick Clegg, i.e. the leaders who are most likely to form a government after May 7th. On that occasion, the two applicants for 10 Downing Street, as well as the pro-European Liberal Democrat, will have to show their foreign policy credentials and tell the British voters what their vision for the United Kingdom in Europe, and in the world, will look like.