The EU suffers from an importance problem


The UK and EU have a few problems – high-fives being one of them. Photo: EPA

To some casual observers of the state of UK politics, it might be a very reasonable to ask the question: Why are we having an EU referendum? I mean, where did this come from?

For the rest of us mad enough to have hung around for a while, it largely dates back to the Eastleigh by-election of 2013, which saw a struggling Liberal Democrat party fighting for its seat.

They won it, but who came second was the big story: Ukip.

Ukip were skipping ahead in the polls across the country.

From a voting intention rate of around 7.67% in March 2012, Ukip moved to competing in Eastleigh, and actually winning in Clacton the next year. Ukip were on the move.

What made the Clacton by-election so sweet, however, was it was not a Ukip die-hard who won it.

It was Douglas Carswell, a recent defector from the Conservatives.

Several others defected, and some threatened too, forcing David Cameron to announce he would hold a referendum on EU membership by the end of 2017.

It was included in the Tory manifesto in 2015, and with a majority government to put one forward, Cameron had to schedule a referendum on EU membership.

The trouble for the Prime Minister is he has driven down a cul-de-sac of politics, into which there is very little room to perform a manoeuvre out of.

Either way, he is being pointed towards a lot more hours spent in Brussels, attempting to either confirm a new deal for the UK (which he succeeded in getting consent to earlier this year), or renegotiating after a Brexit (if he is still in power).

UKIP Leader Nigel Farage And Mark Reckless Visit Rochester'

Reckless, another Tory defector. Photo: Matthew Lloyd/Getty Images

The EU also suffers from a problem: An importance problem.

The UK has been a member of the EU since 1975, and so a large number (almost a third) of people alive today will remember the time before the UK was in the EU.

In those 40 years, though, not an awful lot has changed for your average person, with much of the issues the EU dealing with being bureaucratic, or the things we tend to take for granted.

For instance, the open market, which before we joined the EU did not mean we were unable to trade with European countries, adding to the fact people do not feel a whole lot of difference.

The importance of the EU in the eyes of the UK electorate is reflected in European Parliament turnout.

Average turnout since 1979 in the UK is 33.8%, versus the last UK election turnout of 36.4% – almost double.

Turnout is not the best indicator of perceived importance, but it is one of the easiest.

EUref by turnout

Lower turnout = higher Leave vote/ Higher turnout = higher Remain vote. Photo: YouGov

Therefore, the trouble for Cameron and the EU is – because he has been forced into a referendum due to internal party politics – the public is not clamouring to stay inside an institution which they do not perceive to be benefiting them.

The media and a number of groups are exclaiming loudly about the large amount of immigration from the EU, particularly from Poland and south-east Europe, whom people rightly or wrongly accuse as being a drain on the system.

Indeed, because of this, and because people “know what it was like outside the EU” (the words of my Grandfather), it is probable the Leave vote might possibly tip the scales.

Leave voters are also more likely to vote than Remain voters, yet a higher turnout would favour the Remain campaign.

With an official campaign of nearly 10 weeks for Cameron to put across a positive case, it is a limited amount of time to significantly change opinion…either for or against, really.

At the moment, the result is very hard to predict, but it is by no means settled what the future might hold for the UK.


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