The European Union is growing in importance as an issue in British politics. We can see this from the generation of new parties standing for election, devoted to exiting the EU – the United Kingdom Independence Party – and the referendum promised by David Cameron if he is elected in the 2015 General Election. In the early 2000s, EU stance would have made very little influence in voting behaviour compared to today, so what has changed? Why is the EU becoming such a divisive issue?
Under the strong Labour Government in the 2000s, EU interest appeared positive. In a time of economic strength, the populus appeared content in Europe, the benefit of the free movement of labour and lower cost for trading within Europe apparently outweighed the cost of being a member of the EU. The Government was very pro-Europe, and there was suggestion that Britain even join the euro. By huge contrast recent economic problems, particularly in the eurozone, have ensured Britain won’t join the euro, so that it can’t be dragged down with the economic troubles of poorer and more corrupt parts of Europe. The cost of being part of the european union has also been seen as more of an issue, as Government expenditure has been significantly cut; affecting the lives of many Britons – changes to bedroom rules in council housing has made people homeless or completely unable to live in some parts of Britain; while the glaringly large price of Europe still remains on Government chequebooks.
Employment in Britain has been spiralling downwards in the current economic situations, and as a member of the EU there is a danger that employment for British citizens in Britain will fall further. With free movement of labour around Europe, and Britain having one of the most generous unemployment benefits of any European nation, immigration is only expected to rise. As more and more immigrants move into Britain, there will be an increased strain on employment and services. The enlargement of the EU to include parts of eastern Europe, and possibly in the future Turkey, has and will increase the traffic of workers into Britain dramatically, aside from the issue that some of the enlarging nations have very different cultures to what is considered ‘european’. It has been known for racial tensions to arise between British people and eastern european immigrants moving to Britain for work. These race and immigration issues have driven the issue of europe into the popular eye.
Perhaps the most importance fear for eurosceptics is that all of the above issues are no longer under our control. Britain cannot tighten its border controls as the EU has power over this, and cannot survive without remaining tied to the European Union. Britain’s legislative power is slowly being eroded and sent to supranational european bodies, which is of huge importance in UK politics. The EU now governs immigration laws, fishing and agricultural policy, and may extend into traditionally national policy areas like a Common Foreign and Security Policy and Justice and Home Affairs Policy. There is an increasing fear among Britons that they are losing democratic influence over their country, as in instead of choosing a home Government, their vote is being diluted in European institutions. And simultaneously, we are bound to Europe. It would be costly to leave the EU with a sudden rise in cost of importing goods and rebuilding close ties with other European countries. It would be a great struggle for Britain to leave and hold its own outside the EU, but it remains a great struggle for Britain when inside the EU.
If the EU was only a drain on Britain, it couldn’t be divisive in UK Politics, as there would be total agreement over Europe. The reason why the EU is so discussed and important is that there is still evidence to suggest we should be part of Europe. The Liberal Democrats remain intent on remaining in the EU and some even would like to join the euro, though this would be an unpopular move. Europe has split the Conservative party, as some argue for independence while others wish to keep ties. This indecisiveness could prove disastrous for David Cameron in 2015, as UKIP slowly creeps over Tory eurosceptic ground.