Closer to a Brexit

The elections are over.

The elections are over.

David Cameron won a triumphant victory. The Tory leader will have to stand by his promise to hold an In-out-referendum by 2017. The danger of a Brexit from the European Union is growing.“This is the sweetest victory of all”, said David Cameron in the early morning hours in the Tory party headquarters. At that time it was not even clear how big his victory was going to be. Indeed: The 48 year old Prime Minister has won an astonishing and sensational victory. Was there ever talk of a hung parliament? On Friday at 12.35, when David Cameron had just sat down with the Queen in Buckingham Palace, the 326th mandate for the Conservatives was declared. Cameron lead the Tory party to an outright majority. He will not only return for a second term to 10 Downing Street. He will do so without the need for a coalition partner.

Back on the battlefield his opponents were left behind. Ed Miliband, the unlucky chief of the Labour party who had fought a better campaign than expected, failed to win for his party and resigned. Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats and for the past five years Cameron’s small coalition partner, shrank his party from 56 seats to 8. He resigned, too. Even Nigel Farage, the charismatic leader of the xenophobic, EU-phobic UKIP party lost his seat to the Conservatives. He resigned as leader of UKIP as well. UKIP got 13 percent of the votes, but thanks to the First past the post majority voting system only one seat in the House of Commons.

David Cameron’s Tories on the contrary were the winners who took it all. The elections turned into a vote of confidence for his policies: a clear majority of Britons expressed confidence in the Tory party’s competence to restart the economy. Yes, it came with a harsh austerity package. But the voters said Thank you for that, too by giving the Prime Minister the mandate to govern alone in the future.

There was a lot of talk about the end of the majority system before the elections. The Scottish Nationalists and UKIP polled high and this seemed to signal the end of the Two Party System in Great Britain. For 130 years the First Past The Post System had guaranteed a majority for one of the two big parties. It did not seem to work anymore with a hung parliament being predicted. Cameron can now say that he rectified this. A reform of the majority system does not seem to be likely in the near future.

The success of the SNP under the energetic and sympathetic leader Nicola Sturgeon will be a challenge for Cameron. The SNP grew from 5 to 56 mandates. The Nationalists practically wiped out the Labour party in Scotland. Sturgeon will sit in Cameron’s neck with demands as long as he rules and he will give in to her – but also to the demands of the other nations - the English for instance. He will have to give both Scots and English the right to choose their own income tax rates. If this seems like a minor issue, it will still rattle the fundaments of the United Kingdom.

Europe did not play a big role during the campaign, other issues like welfare state, immigration and of course the economy occupied people’s minds much more. But for the European partners the most important outcome of these elections is a referendum about a possible exit from the European Union. Cameron promised it. And the Brexit could happen as soon as 2017.

“Even people who want Britain to stay in will think it is time to have a referendum to clear the air”, explained LSE professor Tony Travers to me in the middle of election night. Travers is optimistic that “a majority will be likely to support the stance that Britain must stay in. There is lots of history embedded in why the EU was created and why it exists today.”

The business elite wants Great Britain to staying in the European Union. So does the Labour party and a majority of the Tories. Cameron himself wants to stay in – if the EU agrees to some reforms. “The EU has to find something to give Cameron which he can sell as a negotiation success”, says Travers. “The great thing about the EU is, whatever it’s faults are, the EU is extremely good at giving just the impression that something has been given.”

But it will not be easy to find another British rebate. Cameron’s predecessors have already negotiated out of almost everything possible. Margaret Thatcher got the rebate in 1984. At that time 80 percent of the EU budget was spent on agricultural subsidies. As Great Britain did not profit from those as much as other member states like France, Thatcher forced the partners to pay her some of Britain’s membership contributions back. Meanwhile the percentage of the EU budget spent on agriculture has shrunk to about 40 percent. The Britons, however, don’t think they should stop receiving their rebate.

On the contrary, they seek more special treatment. It is still not clear which ones. The Prime Minister wants to keep his Tory backbenchers under check and it is better not to narrow down his demands too much before he even starts negotiating with his fellow EU partners. On his shopping list David Cameron wrote down a few things like: “New rules to prevent vast migration”. To reduce immigration he wants to cut social benefits for migrants in the first years. He might find a partner in Angela Merkel. A treaty change would not be necessary for this.

But Cameron has other, more complicated ideas, too. He wants to strengthen national parliaments. And he does not want to be forced to make any more steps closer to a Political Union. Currently his fellow EU partners have other issues to deal with, but Cameron could ask for a special protocol just in case a new treaty will ever be negotiated. Great Britain got these “opt outs” before. The United Kingdom is not a member of the common currency. And equally not of the Schengen zone which ended the era of frontiers between the member states in Europe.

Europe, however, was not a big subject on the day after the elections. Too big was the shock of Cameron’s astonishing victory. One indication how little the EU mattered during these elections is the relative defeat of UKIP. The biggest surprise on Friday morning was that Nigel Farage himself lost his seat to a conservative candidate. He resigned as UKIP leader, not without saying: “Personally I feel relieved and I was never happier!” It sounded a little bit too cheerful to be true. Farage was absolutely central to the success of his party. The EU phobic camp just lost its front man. The enemies of Europe will run around like headless chicken for a while.

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© 2018 Tessa Szyszkowitz