We should hope that Cameron pursues a sensible agenda and that his legacy is continued British membership of a reformed EUby Peter Mandelson / May 20, 2015 / Leave a comment
Published in June 2015 issue of Prospect Magazine
Among the many surprises of the UK general election was the failure of Europe to ignite as an election issue. Tony Blair made an early and effective intervention setting out the international costs for Britain of quitting the European Union. That was about it. David Cameron punctuated his stump speeches with the odd reminder of the Conservatives’ referendum promise but I do not remember a TV debate or public encounter when Europe flared into life.
This, and the failure by Nigel Farage, the leader of the UK Independence Party, to win a seat, tells us something. Europe is not regarded as a priority issue by the large majority of the British public and when given a choice, people will opt for six or seven issues before arriving at Europe in a list of concerns.
Of course, if you ask the public whether they want a referendum on Europe most will say yes, but then they would do so on many issues. Yet just because the public is more bothered by other things does not mean that people will fail to pass judgement on what irritates them about the EU or brush aside the opportunity to make their protest on whatever else is worrying them at the time. That is the danger of a plebiscite. It begins by being called on one issue and ends up as a verdict on a host of others.
Cameron justifies the referendum because of the public’s “wafer thin” support for the EU and the need to address this. But he stops short of saying that he will definitely make the case for Europe and campaign for a vote to stay in. This perplexes other heads of government. He is hardly encouraging them to make painful concessions to him if they cannot even rely on him at the end of the process to campaign for a positive vote.