UK Prime Minister David Cameron heads to Brussels to argue for a freeze in the next EU budget while under pressure at home to hold a referendum on EU membership. Polls show a majority of Britons want to leave the bloc.
A fresh opinion poll has showed that 56 percent of Britons would either definitely, or most likely, vote to leave the EU in a referendum. Only 30 percent said they wanted the UK to remain a member. The desire to leave cut across all the three main political parties.
Europe has traditionally split Prime Minister Cameron‘s Conservative party, but the past fights were largely over institutional points, such as how to renegotiate parts of the UK's commitments to the EU.
This time, it is about money, which is something most people understand, and a growing number within Cameron's own party now openly argue for Britain to leave the Union altogether.
“We've seen the introduction of a younger generation of politicians who are more populist in their leaning and certainly more euroskeptic,” Andy Mycock, a political scientist at the University of Huddersfield told DW.
“That makes it more difficult for David Cameron to represent broader British interests and to try to maintain a sense in which Britain has a commitment to the European Union.”
The Prime Minister was already facing an uphill battle at this week's Brussels budget summit, where he was expected to argue for a real-term freeze in future EU spending. The European Parliament wants a six percent increase.
But earlier this month euroskeptics from both Cameron's Conservative party and the opposition Labour party formed a parliamentary majority calling for cuts to the EU budget.
David Cameron wants to leave the question of a referendum until the next general election, due in 2015. An earlier vote would most probably mean the end of his current government because his coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, do not support a referendum at all.
Euroskeptics within Cameron's party have been busy capitalizing on the opinion poll showing majority support for the UK to exit the EU.
“The basis on which we joined the EU has been falsified. Instead of making its peoples get on better, it has stoked national antagonisms,” Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan wrote in the Guardian newspaper this week.
“Ponder the astonishing fact that our net budget contribution [to the EU] in 2011 was more than the savings made by all the government's domestic spending cuts put together. Every penny squeezed out of our austerity program is being sent to Brussels.”
Austerity breeding euroskepticism
David Cameron's government is in the middle of delivering severe cuts to public spending, which is having an impact on large swathes of the UK population. Andy Mycock of Huddersfield University believes this, along with the Euro-crisis, is contributing to the current record-level of anti-EU sentiment in Britain.
“This [opinion poll] is very much a malleable and flexible indication, and over the last 20 years we've seen support for European Union membership rise and fall in line with political opinion and also the economic situation in the United Kingdom. When it becomes more clear that the United Kingdom leaving the European Union would have significant economic implications for the British people, I suspect that they would not vote to leave the European Union,” Mycock said.
Yet as long as his party remains split on Europe, David Cameron cannot ignore calls for a referendum. The Conservatives are also bleeding voters to the anti-EU Independence Party (UKIP). Once a marginalized one-issue group, UKIP now commands seven percent of the vote in Britain.
“It's pretty obvious that UKIP has succeeded in influencing the way that this whole debate has been discussed,” said John Whittaker, a former UKIP MEP who is now an economist at the University of Lancaster.
“There are a lot of scare stories out there that if we left the European Union somehow our trading relationship with the EU would suffer. It might, marginally, but on the other hand there are a lot of incentives for other members of the European Union to continue trading with Britain.
“So I can't see that it would be very hard to form trading relationships, whether it would resemble the EEA, EFTA or some kind of bilateral relationship like Switzerland's,” Whittaker told DW.
While a referendum on whether Britain should remain an EU member is unlikely during this parliamentary period, most commentators believe Europe will be a major issue in the 2015 general elections.