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Why an EU Referendum in 2017 is more than a 50:50 bet


Many people have not yet woken up to the unintended consequences of an inconclusive UK general election in May of this year. Poll after poll indicates that no party will gain an overall majority and that a Tory-led minority government or a renewed Conservative/Lib Dem coalition is the likeliest outcome.

Unless Labour under Ed Miliband becomes the biggest party after the election, then an EU referendum becomes more and more likely. The Conservatives will have the promise of a referendum enshrined in their manifesto and will vote to enact one. Support for such a referendum is likely to come from some surprising parts of Parliament.

Although unlikely to have a clear and workable majority on their own, David Cameron might prefer to have a Lib Dem coalition with his Tory party anyway.

One of the redline issues in the coalition negotiations with the Lib Dems will be that they must support a referendum bill if they are to enter coalition. If the Lib Dems go down to 20 seats or thereabouts, their negotiating hand will be weakened and they will have to acquiesce to most of the Tory manifesto commitments.

It could be that the Scottish Nationalist Party may play a pivotal (and self-interested) role in supporting a referendum bill. Because for the SNP, it will be a win-win situation. If they support a referendum and campaign hard for a stay-in vote in Scotland and the national vote is for ‘Out’, then it is likely to lead to a second Scottish independence referendum very quickly.

If that were the case, the SNP’s dream of an independent Scotland would likely become a reality on the back of Scotland applying to join the EU as an independent state. If the national result was to stay-in, then Scots would perceive the SNP’s position as being responsible and in line with the large majority of Scottish voters.

Hence between 20-40 SNP MPs would likely support Cameron’s position on a referendum. If one takes into account the various Ulster Unionists (a minimum of 8 MPs) and Sinn Fein (5 MPs), the numbers in support of a referendum could soon add up to be a substantial majority.

However, what would definitely tip the balance would be the vote of Labour rebels in support of a referendum. For the Conservatives, as part of a manifesto commitment there would be very very few MPs who would be tempted to rebel, the same is not true of Labour. Since Labour is not mentioning a referendum in its manifesto, eurosceptic Labour MPs such as John Cryer and Kate Hoey would not have the same pressure on them to toe the party line.

It is likely that between 20 and 30 Labour MPs could vote for a referendum for various reasons even if it meant defying the party whip.

Support for a referendum bill in the House of Commons might then command a majority of between 50 to 100 votes even if most of the Labour party MPs voted against holding an EU referendum.

If a referendum bill were to pass, then the law of unintended consequences would certainly come into play. Firstly, both Germany and France have general elections in 2017 and there will be not many domestic votes for following the Tories agenda in Europe. This will make gaining significant concessions from the other 27 EU governments extremely difficult.

What concessions Cameron may obtain will have to be in the form of policy agreements etc. without a strong legal base, i.e. no treaty change. This will make the ‘sell’ to the UK public more difficult in trying to convince them that the Government has won significant concessions. It may even make a large majority of the Tory party to campaign for an ‘Out’ vote in the referendum.

But the unintended consequences may be much more than domestic UK concerns. If the UK does pass a referendum bill, then Marine Le Pen in France will also demand a referendum. On the back of a strong showing in the 2017 Presidential elections, the momentum for a referendum in France may be unstoppable.

A UK ‘out’ vote may give the Greeks the courage to go for Grexit, renege on their debts and move into the orbit of Russia as a defensive posture. It would also encourage a fundamental reappraisal of Ireland’s position in the EU. Although strong supporters of the EU, would the Irish government, in the medium to long-term, be able to stand aside as its biggest trading partner by far was outside of the EU.

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