GIVEN our preoccupation with our general elections on May 11, we can be excused for having largely ignored the shock results in the recent local council elections in the UK. Here, too, a new party shattered the mould by grabbing a quarter of the votes cast. Nigel Farage, UKIP’s leader, claims that he now represents the third largest party in the UK.
The United Kingdom Independence Party, to give the party its full name, has pushed the Liberal Democrats, traditionally the country’s third party after Labour and the Conservatives, into fourth place. Indeed, at the South Shields by-election, UKIP placed second, eclipsing the Conservatives who were third, while the Lib-Dems were a distant seventh, even below the extreme right-wing BNP. The poor Lib-Dems lost their deposit, a foretaste of things to come in the 2015 general elections.
UKIP appears to have a single-item agenda of wanting Britain to leave the European Union. This demand is based not so much on economics but on opposition to immigration. Under EU rules, citizens of member countries can move freely, work and live in other states in the Union.
Currently, there are around four million foreign immigrants living in the UK; this includes some 2.33 million EU citizens. As against these statistics, there are approximately 1.5 million Brits living in the EU. Many of them are retired with homes in France and Spain.
Nevertheless, there is a growing backlash against the large number of East Europeans flooding into UK and taking advantage of its generous social benefits. Under the Labour government, hundreds of thousands of Poles entered the UK when their country gained admission into the EU. In fact, Polish is now the second most widely spoken language in England, with over half a million Poles living here. There are growing fears that once Romania and Bulgaria become full members of the EU later this year, there will be another flood of immigrants from these countries.
This is the wave of anti-immigrant sentiment that UKIP is riding. But the party is not alone in this: in a recent vote in the House of Commons, 114 Conservative MPs broke ranks to vote with Labour on a bill criticising the Queen’s annual speech for not including a reference to a referendum on staying in the EU.
This is the vote promised by David Cameron in 2017 to decide whether the UK had a future in the Union or not. However, since its re-election in 2015 is not a sure thing by any means, the referendum is a distant promise nobody takes very seriously. If Labour wins, it is unlikely to call a referendum as it strongly supports membership. Some make the economic case that Britain would be better off by leaving the EU. According to these critics, UK is a net contributor in the sense that it pays more into the EU budget than it gets. But this is equally true of Germany which pays nearly a fifth of the EU budget.
Another argument that is often heard is that membership in the EU has steadily eroded British sovereignty. Its courts are now subservient to EU courts for a range of human rights issues, and its businesses have to conform their practices to EU regulations. This raises the cost of exports as well as trading locally.
Many on the right are infuriated by the fact that laws enacted by the British Parliament can now be challenged in the EU’s appellate courts. A slew of health and safety rules have been taken to absurd lengths, and firms having to enforce them pass on the cost to the consumer. All this has raised hackles among many traditionalists.
For Labour and many liberals, however, the EU represents a step further on the road to an integrated Europe. After centuries of warfare and trade-related conflict, the EU was an idealistic attempt to forge unity in a divided continent. Now it seems that the bold experiment is set to unravel.
David Cameron, in a bid to defuse the debate, says he will renegotiate Britain’s terms of entry to repatriate some of the powers that have been transferred to Brussels over the years. To France and Germany, this cherry-picking of rights and obligations is unacceptable as they fear that it might set off a chain reaction with other members attempting a similar selective in-out exercise.
Indeed, if the “British contagion”, as it has been dubbed, spreads to other states, we might soon witness the dissolution of the EU. As it is, the Union is under strain from the fiscal weakness of countries like Greece, Portugal, Ireland and Cyprus. The vast sums needed to bail them out have been largely underwritten by an increasingly reluctant Germany. There, too, a growing number of people want out as they are weary of having to pay for the fiscal irresponsibility of other member states.
Nigel Farage, UKIP’s genial face, denies that he is in any way racist, but wants severe curbs on immigration, and his opposition to continued membership in the EU is only one aspect of his Britain First stance. But the reality is that he represents a majority view: over half of those polled in the UK would like to leave the EU, while 70 per cent want a referendum now. These figures present a huge challenge to the Conservative Party that is seeing many of its supporters swing to UKIP.
David Cameron is facing a rebellion among his backbenchers as two of his cabinet members have come out to declare that they would vote to leave the EU now. If he cannot defuse the situation, the demand for an immediate referendum will grow. Cameron can only pray that France and Germany will bail him out by agreeing to a few face-saving measures that will allow him to claim victory in his campaign to repatriate powers back from Brussels.
And if Britain pulls out, this might well be the beginning of the end of the EU.