Cara H, Editor of Unconquered Peaks, looks at the key reasons that led David Cameron to hold the 2016 EU referendum.
In this essay I focus on the factors which led to the 2016 Referendum being held, rather than the result. David Cameron called the 2016 EU Referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union (EU) in 2015, giving the British public the right to decide whether their future would be in or out of the EU. They chose to leave the EU by a margin of 51.9% leave, versus 48.1% remain. The UK-EU relationship has always been complicated and fraught, ever since joining in 1973. Factors analysed are ‘important’ as they led to Euroscepticism in British politics or the British public, and/or led to political pressure on Cameron to hold a referendum on EU membership.
I argue that the UK’s historic relationship with the EU contrasts sharply with their current aims. As for immigration, general anti-immigration sentiment, and the rise of UKIP (which are very much linked) strongly contributed to Euroscepticism and political pressure on Cameron. I also touch on Cameron himself, and his decision making around quelling his backbenchers.
A transactional vs political relationship
Britain has always viewed the EU differently to our European friends. Whilst most of Europe see themselves as European, Britons are the least likely to have Europe form part of their identity (see graph below), and do not have the same allegiance to Europe in comparisons to the German or French. Instead, we view our relationship with the EU as transactional, through a cost-benefit, economic analysis. This can be clearly traced back to our original reasons for joining.
In the late 1950s, Britain was experiencing a post-war economic rut, while Germany and France were experiencing strong growth. Britain’s spheres of influence were declining, and trade with the USA and Commonwealth had decreased. This led to the belief that joining the bloc might remedy the UK’s economic problems. Macmillan, the UK Prime Minister at the time, “saw the European Community as an economic panacea… here was a way in which the British economy could overcome so many of its problems without resorting to a radical and painful domestic economic overhaul” (Holmes, n.d.) This analysis of Britain’s reasons for joining contrasts sharply with the EU’s increasingly political aims. Though Britain arguably shares the aims of the European Project, it does not share the same desire to become one with Europe and is interested in the EU only economically. Having joined the EU for economic reasons, and later being faced with political integration, increased tensions.
These tensions between an economic, free trade-based union and a political integratory one, have been the backdrop of the UK’s interactions with the EU. For example, the Eurozone Crisis in the UK especially damaged views towards Europe, not simply because of what happened, but because the ‘cost’ of remaining a member became highlighted. The heightened tensions within the political establishments of the UK and the EU have seeped into the general public psyche. Therefore, the dual nature of the EU as a trade-bloc and a political union had a negative impact on the UK’s relationship with the EU, by increasing Euroscepticism, and in turn increasing political pressure on Cameron to hold a referendum in 2016.
Immigration concerns conflated with EU
Freedom of movement is enshrined in the EU’s ‘DNA’. As stated in 1957 in the Treaty of Rome, it can be defined as ‘EU nationals having the right to move freely within the European Union and to enter and reside in any EU member state’ (Bundesministeriums des Innern, 2015). Non-EU immigration levels have always been higher than EU immigration levels. Meaning that the argument around freedom of movement as a cause of unsustainable immigration has been greatly exaggerated. It is the perception of EU immigration that has stuck; the EU became synonymous with immigration of any kind, whether this is misguided or not.
The increased level of non-EU and EU immigration put pressure on aspects of British culture which are not so open to those perceived as ‘non-British’. Integration is often difficult for those of a different culture. For example, differences in language, traditions and skills, can lead to those with a strong sense of British national identity perceiving immigrants negatively, as they threaten what some see as British culture. And yet this immigration concern is incorrectly conflated with the EU, as the majority of immigration to the UK has little to do with the European Union (though one could also argue that all British anti-immigration sentiment is largely unfounded, regardless of the place of origin). An excellent paper by Chatham House presents a cross analysis of people’s voting choices (leave vs remain), compared to their attitudes towards immigration (both non-EU and EU). The trait that most divided the ‘leavers’ from the ‘remainers’ was their attitudes towards immigration and British culture: nearly ¾ of ‘outers’ agreed that ‘Immigration undermines British culture”.
Therefore, this cultural negativity towards immigration manifests itself in many ways, one of which is opposition to the EU, through the conflation of (any) immigration with EU membership. One of the EU’s most sacred principles is freedom of movement, and the growing number of immigrants since the UK’s membership of the EU has only increased this Euroscepticism, which increased the likelihood of EU-UK referendum.
UKIP’s sudden rise
UKIP was founded in 1991 and can be categorised as a single-issue party, with the sole aim of bringing the UK out of the EU, via a referendum. Once Nigel Farage became leader of UKIP in 2006, it grew in popularity, with gains in the 2013 local elections (22% of the vote), two Conservative Party defections to UKIP in 2013, and impressive results in both the 2014 European Parliament elections (largest number of seats with 24) and the 2015 General Election (12.5% of the popular vote). They were most certainly on the up.
UKIP’s rise led to Cameron’s electoral position becoming increasingly threatened: UKIP is a right-wing party, whose voters were more likely to be white and older than that of Labour’s electorate. Therefore, UKIP was able to split the Conservative vote (Martill, 2018). In 2014, UKIP managed to gain over a quarter of votes in European Parliament elections, outnumbering the Conservatives. Understandably, this was a clear threat to the Conservative Party at the time. Though support for UKIP was clearly influenced by other factors, (i.e factors that pushed voters towards UKIP), UKIP managed to harness Euroscepticism in the general public, and transform this into meaningful political pressure on David Cameron to hold a referendum. The nature of UKIP’s rise – sudden, large, and at a time when the Conservatives did not have a majority (pre-2015 General Election), was a very important factor in leading to the referendum. Arguably, UKIP’s pressure on Cameron led him to hold an election, lest he lose public and potentially party support, and inevitably, a general election. Therefore, due to the rise of UKIP, a party based on support for a referendum on the EU, Cameron was incentivised to put a referendum promise in his party’s manifesto in 2015 and hold one in 2016, in order to keep his Conservative Government in office.
Cameron’s desire for a quick fix
The Prime Minister is by far the main source of authority over whether to hold a referendum or not, so analysing Cameron is important in answering this essay’s question. Cameron’s decision around party management was an impactful factor in leading to the 2016 EU Referendum.
The promise of a referendum can be seen as a ‘quick fix’ method of appeasement to the Eurosceptic backbenchers. As is clear from the rise of the Conservative Eurosceptic faction, heightened tensions were forming in the Conservative Party from 2013 onwards, and this threatened the Party’s ability to govern. Hence, Cameron felt compelled to manage his party over Europe, by delegating the decision to the public. When the referendum was initially promised in June 2013, Cameron was concerned with stopping the backbenchers rebelling in the coalition. He wanted to silence the Eurosceptic wing of the party that had caused so much trouble for the party over the years; an ‘easy fix’ to a longstanding problem (Martill, 2018). A comment that encapsulates this, is from Donald Tusk (former President of the European Council), recounting his meeting with Cameron after the referendum was announced in 2013:
“Why did you decide on this referendum, [Tusk recounts asking Cameron this] – it’s so dangerous, even stupid, you know, and he told me – and I was really amazed and even shocked – that the only reason was his own party… [He told me] he felt really safe, because he thought at the same time that there’s no risk of a referendum, because his coalition partner, the Liberals, would block this idea of a referendum” (BBC, 2019).
Clearly, party management was very influential in Cameron’s decision-making. Therefore, the decision desire to repair the divide in his party, was hugely impactful in leading to the 2016 EU Referendum.
In conclusion, the nature of our relationship with the EU, immigration sentiment, UKIP and Cameron’s decision making were the most important factors in leading to the EU Referendum. Especially impactful was UKIP’s ability to harness Euroscepticism into political pressure. But arguably, the end of our EU membership was spelt out from the beginning.
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[Accessed 9 20 2021].
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Martill, B., 2018. Brexit and Beyond: Rethinking the Futures of Europe. London: UCL Press.