In June 2014, people from across Europe will elect the next European Parliament. They probably won’t do so in great numbers: at the last election in 2009, turnout was less than 50% in more than two-thirds of the European Union’s 27 member states.
In the UK, just over 34% of people voted. But next time, it could well be different. The European elections – which inspire apathy among many, and probably no more than a dutiful trudge to the polls for those who do vote – could have a major bearing on the UK’s future role in the world.
A win by the UK Independence Party at the 2014 European elections could set the UK on the course to a referendum on EU membership, and a likely exit from the EU (a rational debate being improbable in the hothouse atmosphere of a referendum campaign). This is something that is already concerning David Cameron.
It may seem absurd to suggest a Ukip win. This is, after all, a party that has no representation in the Westminster parliament. It has a history of infighting, expulsions and defections in the European Parliament and is a marginal annoyance in the chamber, with little influence. Ukip’s best ever performance in a national poll was in 2009, when it won 13 of the UK’s 72 seats in the European Parliament and beat Labour into third place. But that result was achieved with only 16.5% of the vote – and that on a low turnout and in an elected directly related to the party’s core issue.
However Ukip is regularly scoring around eight per cent in opinion polls – occasionally nudging ahead of the Liberal Democrats. It has dozens of councillors, especially in the Midlands and the South. And the Conservatives, now in power, will not attract in 2014 the protest vote that helped it to win the last three European elections. With the Conservatives now engrained with Euroscepticism, many Tory members could well lend their vote to Ukip to expedite the road to a referendum.
David Cameron is well aware of this fact – hence this weekend’s shift from opposing a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU (Saturday) to supporting one (Sunday). By Monday morning, his people were floating a potential date of May 2015, to coincide with the next general election.
This is cold and cynical calculation by the Prime Minister. He is cowed by the 100-or-so Tory backbench MPs who are strongly Eurosceptic and either want an ‘in-out’ vote or, as in the case of the former defence secretary, Liam Fox, a fundamental renegotiation of the UK’s engagement in the EU. As The Guardian neatly put it this morning, Mr Cameron is “led by the noes”.
Despite the Prime Minister spending two years telling the country that he is governing in the ‘national interest’, he now appears to be governing in the interests of the Conservative Party. He is playing fast and loose with the UK’s most important international economic and political relationship. It is a dangerous game.