Chalk + Talk: Britain’s relationship with the EU

The British relationship with the European Union has altered in recent times owing to constitutional, legal and political changes in both systems.

Should he be re-elected in 2015, Prime Minister David Cameron has promised to hold an ‘in-out’ referendum on British EU membership following a period renegotiating the relationship.

The Social Market Foundation hosted Professor Anand Menon (King’s College London) at our ESRC sponsored Chalk + Talk lunchtime seminar series to discuss the questions this raises, including:

  1. What are the prospects for a successful ‘renegotiation’?
  2. Will there be a referendum, if so when, and what might be the eventual outcome?
  3. What are the alternatives to membership of the EU?


The UK has enjoyed a lot of influence at EU-level. So far.

Professor Menon suggests overall a positive outlook for renegotiations in Europe. Looking back over the UK’s relationship with the EU indicates that the UK has enjoyed unparalleled influence over EU negotiations and a large degree of success in terms of promoting UK interests in Europe. The European Council has also recognised the UK’s concerns, and the President of the European Commission has stressed the EU’s desire to for continued EU membership. The EU agenda for the next 24 months also appears particularly UK-friendly, with TTIP, a digital single economy and financial market integration featuring prominently. This sets a positive outlook for David Cameron’s proposed renegotiations.

Outlining his main renegotiation demands, Cameron has focussed on preventing further mass migration through EU enlargement; limiting welfare benefits to migrants; increasing powers of national parliaments; reducing red tape and the burden of regulation; and repealing ever closer union. What is most striking about this list is actually how close we’ve already come to achieving them – no enlargements are currently planned, there is leeway to impose conditions on the rights of migrants to claim benefits, flows of power back to national parliaments have been growing since the Lisbon Treaty, and there is work ongoing to scrap unnecessary regulation.

However,  further reforms could be difficult to achieve. Cameron has support amongst our EU partners for the principal of curbing benefit abuse, but red lines are emerging with regard the free movement of labour. Furthermore, any attempt at a treaty change may prove difficult to achieve if it will require referendums in individual member states – a proposition which many national governments who do not currently enjoy a high level of popular support will be wary of.

General Election uncertainty means referendum uncertainty

While the outlook for renegotiation and reform in the EU look positive, the chances of a referendum on EU membership within the next couple of years will inevitably hinge on the outcome of the general election in May. The outcome of both the election and any referendum are difficult to call. Polling results leading into the election may be unreliable because they draw on historic political trends and struggle to assess the impact on voting of the recent proliferation of influential parties.

With regards to the referendum, polls suggest an increase in support to stay in the EU in tandem with increased support for UKIP, and whilst 4 in 10 have suggested a preference to leave; only a third  of those in favour feel exit is a priority. Professor Menon suggests that an “insurgency factor” – a falling trust in politics and in economic success makes predicting the outcome of a referendum also particularly difficult.

“Out” could mean many things

Another factor clouding the debate is the vagueness around what ‘out’ would actually look like. Broadly speaking there are three possible options for exit, with pros and cons attached to each; the UK could join the EEA (like Norway); work out bilateral agreements with the EU (like Switzerland); or ‘go it alone’ within the remit of our WTO membership.

Both Norway and Switzerland have implemented a large degree of EU legislation without the ability to influence negotiations around them, suggesting that looser relations with the EU of this nature would do little to address concerns about the weight of EU legislation on UK statute. Furthermore, in the event of an exit repealing all EU law would be a large, complex, time consuming undertaking, which would cause a large degree of uncertainty. Economic outcomes will inevitably depend to a large degree on the trade agreements and lasting relationship that the UK is able to negotiate with the EU.  It is important to note also that negotiations will be long and hugely complex, and any option the UK puts forward must be approved by the EU Council and Parliament, meaning that an outcome in the UK’s best interest might be difficult to achieve.

The economic case alone won’t win the argument

Unsurprisingly, the focus on economic or regulatory concerns is failing to resonate with voters. A wider debate encompassing the political direction and the lesser-discussed social impact of the European Union will be necessary to avoid a negative campaign on either side.


Alongside this blog, you can catch up on Professor Menon’s Chalk + Talk on Twitter using #SMFchalktalk or by listening to our podcast below.

Chalk + Talk is the SMF’s popular lunchtime seminar series, run in partnership with the ESRC. Chalk + Talk brings the best policy output from the world of academia into the heart of Westminster.


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