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Nov 4, 2014 | 10:15 GMT

8 mins read

In the U.K., Cameron Braces for a Strenuous Month

In the U.K., Cameron Braces for a Strenuous Month

British Prime Minister David Cameron's Conservative-led government is facing a difficult two weeks at the end of this month. A key by-election, a likely rebellion in the House of Commons and a showdown with the European Union have come all at once, and by Dec. 2 Cameron's premiership could look considerably shakier than it does now. The underlying theme in all of these issues is the Euroskepticism that is taking hold across the United Kingdom as the European Union's traditionally awkward member approaches the moment when it will re-evaluate its relationship with the continental bloc.  

The United Kingdom's relationship with Europe has long been defined by its geopolitical imperatives. As an island situated off a divided Continent, the United Kingdom historically built its strategy around a balance of power, staying largely aloof from European struggles unless it appeared that a continental hegemon was emerging, at which point the United Kingdom would form a coalition with weaker powers and defeat the aggressor. At the same time, the United Kingdom has Atlantic interests that bring it closer to the United States. With the creation of the European Project after World War II, the United Kingdom found itself facing the choice of joining a united Europe or remaining independent but isolated. It ultimately chose the former, but at every stage it negotiated vetoes and opt-outs. It stepped into the room but never strayed too far from the door.

Meanwhile, the independent British instinct has remained close to the surface, and recent slowdowns in Europe, alongside relatively high immigration in the last decade from Poland and fears of the same kind of immigration surge from Romania and Bulgaria, have fueled greater anti-Europe and anti-immigration sentiments among the British population. This attitude has bolstered the Euroskeptical U.K. Independence Party (UKIP) and has found sympathetic ears among many Tory members of Parliament. In January 2013, Cameron tried to seize the initiative on the issue by promising an in/out EU referendum in 2017 if he is re-elected in 2015, but instead of undermining UKIP he has been forced to take up ever-stronger anti-Europe stances as he tries to remain in touch with his party and the British people.

On Oct. 23, on the way to an EU summit in Brussels, Cameron was informed by an aide that the United Kingdom (along with other countries including the Netherlands, Italy and Ireland) was being asked to pay an extra 2.1 billion euros ($2.6 billion) into the EU budget — money that would go toward a rebate for other European states such as France and Germany. The due date for the bill is Dec. 1. Taken by surprise and aware of the domestic political implications as his Conservative-led coalition government enters a deeply fraught period in its relationship with Europe, Cameron tweeted that he was "angry at the sudden presentation" of the bill, calling it "appalling" and saying that he will not pay it Dec. 1. Cameron took a defiant stance in the ensuing meeting with EU leaders, which was meant to be about climate change.

Subsequent revelations have made it clear that the EU bill to London was actually officially documented, and the other governments have been preparing for a large bill since earlier in the year. Media reports also indicate that the U.K. Treasury was made aware of the exact figures earlier that week and had not communicated them to the prime minister. Cameron has now created another showdown with Europe in which he has little support from other EU leaders (who have shown much more willingness to pay) and which appears to be caused to a large extent by mismanagement within his own government. Meanwhile, with a general election coming in May 2015, the Euroskeptical UKIP is watching eagerly, well aware that these developments are likely to drive the electorate into its camp.

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The Rise of UKIP

The United Kingdom's relationship with Europe has long been a problematic issue for Cameron's government, but tensions between London and the Continent have been exacerbated greatly by the rise of UKIP. The party was created in 1993 by Euroskeptical forces that had opposed the Maastricht Treaty (which led to the creation of the euro), but it failed to make great strides until 2012, when opinion polls suggested it had overtaken the Liberal Democrats, Cameron's coalition partners in the government, as the United Kingdom's third most popular party. Since then, its rise has been dramatic; it became the first U.K. party in more than a century outside of the Conservative and Labor parties to come first in a nationwide election, winning 24 of 73 available seats in the European elections in May of this year. UKIP's position on the political spectrum has always been to the right of the Conservatives, who previously were insulated from the party's political threat by a succession of public relations blunders by UKIP officeholders. For example, Godfrey Bloom, one notable former member of UKIP, is alleged to have been carried out of the European Parliament by an intern after making a speech while drunk, and on another occasion shouted Nazi slogans at a German member of the European Parliament who was making a speech.

However, UKIP's recent mainstream success has exposed the vulnerabilities of the Conservative Party — not just in its electorate but also among its parliamentary members. The ranks of the Conservative Party have long harbored Euroskepticism, the latest demonstration of which is the defection of two Conservative parliamentary members to UKIP. In the United Kingdom, if a sitting member of parliament steps down, a by-election is called to choose his replacement. The first Conservative rebel, Douglas Carswell, won his by-election on Oct. 9, becoming UKIP's first member of the national parliament. The Conservative Party was resigned to losing this first contest because of the incumbent's popularity in his district. The second by-election, however, is considered a must-win for Cameron, who has vowed to "throw the kitchen sink" at it. There are two reasons for his determination: First, Mark Reckless (the defector) is considered beatable, and second, two losses in a row could trigger an exodus of other Conservative parliamentary members with UKIP sympathies (four other Conservatives are rumored to be considering a defection to the Euroskeptical party). The Conservatives have thus billed the by-election of Nov. 20 in Rochester and Strood as a line in the sand, and the by-election will be taking place just days after a controversial vote in Parliament over the United Kingdom's relationship with Europe.

A Country Apart

The contentious parliamentary vote is on the European Arrest Warrant, which was created in 2004 in the security-conscious climate that followed 9/11. Once issued by an EU state, a European Arrest Warrant requires another member state to arrest and extradite a suspected offender to the issuing country for trial.

The Lisbon Treaty of 2009 gave the United Kingdom the ability to opt out of 133 EU justice measures, which it did. However, Cameron's government has since decided to opt back into 35 of them, including the European Arrest Warrant. However, the warrant upsets the sensibilities of many Conservatives.

In order for these opt-ins to take effect, they must first survive a vote in the British Parliament. This is no short order, since 40 Conservatives are expected to vote against it (some rumors put the figure closer to 100). The last two major Tory revolts also occurred over Europe. In 2011, a record 79 members (led by Conservative defector Carswell) voted against the party line by voting for an EU referendum, but fortunately for Cameron the Labor and Liberal Democratic parties voted against it and carried the vote. In 1993, 41 parliament members defied then-Prime Minister John Major by voting against the adoption of the Maastricht Treaty. If Cameron again finds himself at odds with his own party in this struggle, it will give more fuel to the fire of Euroskepticism among Conservatives and could hasten an exodus to UKIP. The vote, which must take place before Dec. 1, is expected to be held in mid-November.

Euroskepticism's Victory

Cameron is looking down the barrel of three damaging political defeats within a two-week period at the end of November. An Oct. 22 poll gave UKIP a 13-point lead in the upcoming Rochester and Strood by-election, suggesting that Cameron's efforts are insufficient for retaining the seat. Either a defeat in that by-election or a 100-member revolt in Parliament over the European Arrest Warrant would be reasonable grounds for a no-confidence vote in his leadership, though that is still unlikely seven months before a general election. Meanwhile, the confrontation with the European Commission over the 2.1 billion-euro bill has huge potential for damaging Cameron's credibility as he finds himself trapped between the implacable European system and an indignant public, with his options severely hampered by the fact that incompetence in his own government created the situation.

While these battles will likely keep Cameron awake at night, it is not important which side wins each fight from a geopolitical perspective. The true winner here is Euroskepticism in the United Kingdom, because each of these events are symptoms of its continued rise. Underlying Euroskepticism has made defection to UKIP a viable option for Conservative members of parliament, has created the grounds for a Euroskeptical rebellion in the House of Commons, has pushed Cameron to react strongly on the EU budget request and will hold him to his pledge to stand up to Europe. Regardless of who comes out on top in next year's general elections, Euroskepticism will be the real victor.

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