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UK Euro-scepticism is becoming increasingly virulent, and confident

The recent party conferences held by the two main Euro-sceptic parties at the end of September in the UK reveal that the issue of European Union membership is the only matter they really care about, writes chief political correspondent Tim McNamara.

However, what is new is that the vehemence of EU opponents is reaching new levels. Growing confidence amongst Euro-sceptics could foreshadow an extremely nasty referendum campaign.

Both the UK Independence party and a large majority of the UK Conservative party (Tories) are utterly opposed to continued EU membership. Make no mistake, these people are totally committed to their cause. With an ideological passion close to a form of religious zealotry, there is no doubt they really are ‘true believers’. It would be difficult to overestimate how motivated they really are.

The ‘true believers’ in the Tory party have now created a schism in UK conservatism. At the time of writing two Members of Parliament (MP) have recently defected to UKIP. It is a real sign of the turbulence in the Tory party that a 3rd or more Tory MPs might have defected to UKIP by the end of the week. It is a clear sign of the turbulence in the Tory party that one has to use the phrase ‘jumping ship’.

What is worse is that there are emerging signs that some invigorated Euro-sceptics are set to intimidate as many of their opponents as possible. Companies that have supported EU membership in the past have been warned that their corporate governance will be disrupted if they do not stay out of the debate over EU membership.

A leading Euro-sceptic Conservative MP, John Redwood has already made public the amount of pressure pro-EU business people will come under. Only this week at a packed Conservative party conference fringe meeting he said: “the only answer for all concerned is for big business to keep out and not express a corporate view”.

He continued: “If they don’t understand that now they will find those of us organising the ‘get out’ campaign will then make life difficult for them by making sure that their customers, their employees and their shareholders who disagree with them – and there will be a lot who disagree with them – will be expressing their views very forcefully and will be destablising their corporate governance.”

He went on to say in what can only be described as a very menacing manner: “It would be extremely foolish and we must make sure they have to pay a very dear economic and financial price were they to try that ill-judged thing.” Redwood’s intervention is clearly indicative of this new found confidence in the Euro-sceptic ranks.

Implicit in these threats is not just that they should not intervene in the debate with statements in favour of EU membership, but that they should not make any donations to the ‘In’ campaign. Of course some might calculate that if the UK voted to leave, they would shut down their UK operations making the threat a non-issue.

In the eyes of people like Redwood, the European Union (and all its works) are at the root of all problems that face British society (despite Euro-scepticism being overwhelmingly an English condition). Loss of civil liberties, immigration, high food prices, high taxes, low wages, high rents, de-industrialisation, overcrowded schools, declining healthcare standards, overfishing, too liberal social policies; the list, in their eyes, is really endless.

It has become the only ideological belief that all of UKIP and most Tories can coalesce around. There are a few defenders of EU membership in the UK’s conservative party (e.g. Ken Clarke, Dominic Grieve and Damien Green) but they are a small and declining band.

Things have got so bad recently that the mainstream centre-right group in Europe (the European Peoples Party – EPP), in an unheralded step, agreed that a rival centre-right UK-based party could compete against the Tories in the recent European Parliament elections. The Four Freedoms party may have only stood in the London region but the fact that the EPP sanctioned such a move indicates the despair amongst the mainstream centre-right in the EU about the shambolic nature of the Tory party over the issue of the EU.

As differences between the main parties in the UK have narrowed over the past two decades or so, politics in parliament and in the country has become less controversial, more consensual, less tribal, more, dare I say it, dull.  It appears that the concept of ‘the narcissism of small differences’ is mainly at play in British political life. Hence the attraction of ‘a plan’ to lambast the political establishment from the outside.

For those turned off by the current state of UK politics (mainly in England) the temptation to get involved in a simple binary choice (In/Out) that involves so much passion/hate/fear is very tempting. As was seen in the debate in advance of the Scottish referendum, a simple Yes/No vote about independence can galvanise an electorate and have a dramatic effect on the political consciousness of many individuals.

A referendum in the UK about EU membership will be just as portentous as the referendum on Scottish independence was in Scotland.

For Euro-sceptics, the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) is also becoming a convenient ‘whipping boy’. Trenchant leading Tory Euro-sceptics like Chris Grayling (Justice Minister) and Theresa May (Home Secretary) attack the ECHR, using it as a convenient scapegoat, when in fact, they mean the EU generally.

Some Euro-sceptics are adopting a dual-track approach to EU membership. They are using the more prosaic role of the ECHR as a tactic to cause a clash between the UK and the EU thereby (they hope) inciting a nationalist response from the UK electorate. Their plan is to cause a vote in parliament to disavow the ECHR that could lead to a stand-off with the EU institutions. Membership of the ECHR is a key EU membership requirement.

It also means they can be seen to toe the party line of David Cameron whilst obliquely expressing their dissatisfaction at that party line. Of course, a large part of this is to do with their party leadership ambitions. But, it also amply demonstrates the state of the party electorate they are appealing to.

The current developing situation in the UK about EU membership should not be dismissed  in the EU as self-indulgent national navel-gazing. Nor should non-Brits be lulled into a false sense of security believing that the UK electorate will come to its senses and vote for the status quo.

Tim McNamara is head of the Peercourt consultancy firm. He was previously political editor at the European Commission.


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