The EU referendum campaign: Lessons from overseas

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On 18 September, Professor Jack Vowles from Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand and Professor Sara Hobolt from the LSE spoke at a seminar jointly organised by The Constitution Unit and the UCL European Institute. The seminar was titled ‘The EU Referendum: Public Information and Regulation of Campaigning’. Bansri Buddhdev offers an overview of the discussion.

By the end of 2017 the UK will have voted either to remain within or to leave the European Union. Whatever the outcome, history tells us that a large slice of the electorate are likely to make up their minds only during the final weeks before polling day. The referendum campaign is therefore set to play a crucial role in shaping public opinion. On 18 September two leading authorities on referendum campaigns, Professors Jack Vowles and Sara Hobolt, came to UCL to share some lessons from overseas ahead of what will be only the UK’s third national referendum.

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A five-point plan for Cameron to win an EU referendum

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The politicians hardly mentioned Europe during the campaign, yet the most important consequence of Britain’s general election will be a referendum on EU membership. Charles Grant offers five suggestions that would allow Cameron to manage Conservative hard-liners and keep Britain in the EU.

Prime Minister David Cameron plans to negotiate reforms to the EU and then hold an in-or-out referendum before the end of 2017. What does he have to do in order to win a referendum on keeping Britain in the club? What is he likely to ask for, in terms of reform? And what would be the impact of ‘Brexit’ on the rest of the EU? 

The voters defied opinion polls and delivered a shocking result: the centre-right Conservatives performed much more strongly than expected in England, the centrist and pro-EU Liberal Democrats lost most of their seats, and the Scottish National Party (SNP) won almost every seat north of the border. The anti-EU United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) won 13 per cent of the votes but only one seat. The centre-left Labour Party – which according to the final opinion polls had a good chance of forming a government – finished almost a hundred seats behind the Conservatives.

At least three factors explain the Conservatives’ triumph: Cameron was a more convincing leader than Labour’s Ed Miliband; the economy’s recent strong performance strengthened the Tory reputation for economic competence; and in the closing stages of the campaign, the Conservatives played on fears that a Labour government propped up by the SNP would be bad for the English.

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The new government’s constitutional reform agenda – and its challenges

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Following the surprise election of a Conservative government with a small majority, Meg Russell and Robert Hazell offer an overview of the constitutional reforms which are likely to be prioritised and the associated difficulties that may arise.

Now that the election result is clear, it’s possible to start thinking through the likely constitutional reforms on the new Conservative government’s agenda. Some of these items are obvious, and others less so. Many of them are very challenging, as we explain below – and will expand in more detail on this blog in the coming days and weeks.

Scottish and Welsh devolution

The biggest story in this election, including as the results came in, has been Scotland. The challenge for Prime Minister Cameron is to hold the UK together, at the very moment when the SNP has almost swept the board in terms of Scottish seats. The Conservative manifesto, like those of the other UK-wide parties, committed to implementing the recommendations of the Smith Commission to devolve further fiscal and welfare powers to Scotland. The Scottish people have been led to believe that will happen easily and early in the new parliament. But this may be difficult. The Smith proposals were strongly criticised by two parliamentary committees – in both Commons and Lords. The SNP will press for more, in pursuit of full fiscal autonomy; while devo-sceptic Conservative backbenchers may argue for less. The sensible thing may be to introduce proposals via a draft bill, to see whether middle ground can be found.

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A referendum on Britain’s EU membership is a sure fire way to encourage the breakup of the UK

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David Cameron has pledged to hold a referendum on the UK’s EU membership if his Conservative party wins a majority at the British general election in May. Jo Murkens writes on the impact an EU referendum would have on the UK’s place in Europe and on the UK as a whole.

A referendum on European Union membership has been a longstanding demand from the Eurosceptic/phobic wing of UK politics. They regard the plebiscite and the prospect of withdrawal as a rejuvenation of national sovereignty and democracy. Over the past few years David Cameron has acceded to the demands by promising a referendum on EU membership in 2017. The three main obstacles he needs to overcome before then are concluding negotiations on reforming the European Union, or changing the UK’s current terms and conditions of EU membership – and, of course, the small matter of winning the May 2015 general election for the Conservatives with an overall majority.

The idea of a referendum opens up a space for discussing the principle of UK membership as well as the details of EU policy, institutional reform, and possible alternatives. This short piece is a comment on the UK’s continued failure to contribute to the EU’s political goals as well as on its failure to understand the EU’s relevance for the integrity of the United Kingdom.

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New president, new ‘Constitution’?

Juncker’s election might mark a new phase of European construction. But the Union’s institutional, political and constitutional foundations need renovation, writes Yves Bertoncini.

Jean-Claude Juncker’s election to the post of president of the Commission marks a new stage in the historic process of rebalancing the powers of member states and the European Parliament. Yet it has been accompanied by a fair number of political, institutional and thus also ‘constitutional’ ambiguities which it would be useful to dispel over the coming weeks, and also with a view to the elections in 2019.

1. An election which sets a welcome political precedent, but which is not yet an institutional ‘custom’

Juncker’s election is the result of a gradual evolution set in motion by the Treaty of Maastricht, which countenanced the principle of a compulsory vote of approval for the Commission in the European Parliament. The Treaty of Amsterdam subsequently separated the vote of approval for the Commission president from the vote for his team. It was on that basis that Tommaso Padoa-Schioppa and our European Steering Committee proposed, as long ago as 1998, a new democratic adjustment consisting in pegging the appointment of the Commission president to the result of the European elections by mobilising the European political parties in that sense and, if possible, amending the treaties to reflect that fact.

The Convention on the future of Europe debated this amendment, but its members refused to peg the Commission president to parliament quite so solidly, although they did suggest that the European Council should ‘take the European elections into account’ when appointing the president. Revived in the Treaty of Lisbon, this formula for a ‘constitutional treaty’ was sufficiently ambiguous to fuel conflicting interpretations, borne out by the radical opposition evinced by the British authorities; but at the same time it was sufficiently open-ended to allow the main European political parties to use it to create a balance of forces from which the assembly in Strasbourg has recently emerged the winner.

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What can we learn from the party of “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists”?

16th May 2014

Annabelle Huet reports on Joe Twyman’s lecture on Europe, the European Elections and the Rise of UKIP at the Constitution Unit 

751 members of the European Parliament will be elected from 28 countries between 22nd and 25th May 2014. On May 22nd Britain will vote for 73 members in total – the third highest proportion of members after Germany and France. Yet most voters are only vaguely aware of the consequences of their choice on European affairs. People and political analysts alike seem more interested in discussing the rise of UKIP, the UK’s foremost anti-establishment and Eurosceptic party, than the future of EU policy.

At the latest UCL Constitution Unit Seminar Joe Twyman, a founding director of YouGov, presented statistics that show that there is indeed a reason for this interest. This time, “the rise of UKIP” is much more striking than what has been observed during previous elections. Why? Because UKIP has gained a 10% overall rise in the polls and is currently predicted to surpass even the Conservatives next Thursday. Less than two weeks before the vote, YouGov’s polls show an estimated 31% of the electorate are intending to vote for UKIP. This would translate to 30 UKIP seats in the European Parliament, more than twice as many as they currently have. Statistics from previous cycles show a return to low levels of support for UKIP shortly after European elections took place, but this time Twyman predicts support for UKIP could well remain high until next year’s general election.

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