Regardless of your views of the merits of the European Union, the current political make-up of the United Kingdom government, the rise of independence parties and the actions of European bureaucrats themselves must have increased the likelihood of a UK exit.
Given the divisions within the Conservative party, it is unlikely that the euro-sceptic wing of the party will lessen the pressure on the party. Their calls to address issues such as EU membership, immigration and sovereignty are unlikely to reduce, particularly as the influence of coalition partners reduces as the election comes closer.
Putting the natural reduction in cohesion aside, the rise of parties such as the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) and the Scottish Nationalists (SNP) are likely to raise the priority of these issues. This is in part due to electoral boundary changes and the increasing number of marginal seats across both Labour and Conservative MP’s.
Regardless of whether you agree with the anti-European position, many polls indicate this is reflecting a large percentage of the wider electorate. Indeed, as long as this is the case, the battle to out-UKIP UKIP is likely to be taken on by all parties to a greater or lesser extent.
If this wasn’t enough. Prime Minster David Cameron has set himself a deadline of the New Year before which he must provide an indication of how he will limit EU immigration as part of a wider renegotiation of EU membership. It would be hard to think of a less contentious and more difficult area of policy to change. Given this, he has set himself an almost impossible challenge.
If this wasn’t complex enough, President of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso has made it clear that any move to reduce free movement of people within the EU would (in his view) be contrary to European Union law.
Whilst acting within his European role, Mr Barroso may have misread the British nature – at last that of those who are more naturally Eurosceptic. His public statement may have served only in reinforcing the position of UKIP and Conservative sceptics. Indeed, it may have similarly convinced the more moderate members of both Conservative and Labour parties that any meaningful renegotiation is impossible.
So, it appears that the Prime Minister finds himself searching for a middle ground. However, his problem is clear. Any solution likely to find support with European colleagues is highly unlikely to be ‘strong’ enough for his own parties euro-sceptic let alone UKIP. Equally, anything likely to gain their support is unlikely to gather any support within the wider European community.
As if this wasn’t making the case for continued European Union membership difficult enough, the past week has seen a demand from Brussels for a further £1.2 billion pounds to be paid by 1st December 2014. Cross party rejection of the demand has done little but paint the EU as acting unreasonably and without appropriate governance. However, Brussels response has been to threaten the UK with fines of £275,000 per day along with withholding the UK rebate. This has done nothing other than secure support from all parties for Mr Cameron’s position of refusing to pay the latest demand.
Given these pressures, no party is taking the pro-European position. Indeed, increasingly the political classes are using phrases such as ‘ultimately this will be a choice for the British people’. It certainly feels to me that many of the parties are thinking what would previously have been unthinkable. At what point does EU membership become an electoral liability?
What is clear is that this is a question which will form a major plank of party electoral positions in 2015. Recent polls show a hung parliament in 2015 is the most likely outcome. Some show such strong fragmentation that no two parties could form a government. If this is the case, the balance of power would appear to move to the euro-sceptic parties.
Perhaps Mr Barroso’s intervention is not as ill-considered as it appears. Certainly, he would be aware of this likelihood. Perhaps he is merely bringing the issue to a head. It appears that the UK relationship with Europe is going to be a hot topic for the next six months in the run up to the election.