On Tuesday, December 16, 2014, the Atlantic Council’s Transatlantic Relations Program hosted Reuters editor-at-large Hugo Dixon for a discussion of the United Kingdom’s relationship with the European Union. The talk, entitled “Britain’s Choice: In or Out?” and moderated by Transatlantic Relations director Fran Burwell, examined domestic and international considerations surrounding a potential referendum in the United Kingdom on leaving the European Union.

Discussion centered on the debate over the UK’s continued membership in the EU. In the aftermath of the political and economic alienation caused by technological advances, globalization, and the global financial crisis, anti-EU groups have grown in popularity by stirring up fears that immigrants, taking advantage of the EU’s freedom of movement laws, are taking British jobs and putting undue strain on the British social welfare system. Pro-EU advocates have pointed out that immigrants tend to be higher educated than the average population and tend to bring in more for the British economy than they take out. They also extoll the benefits to the British economy of the European single market, energy union, and economic integration in other areas.

One of the major unknowns in the UK-EU relationship is the outcome of the UK elections in 2015. Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron’s approach to the issue in the period before the 2015 general elections has been complicated, and he has made efforts to please both pro- and anti-EU wings of his party by pledging restrictions on migrants’ rights to welfare benefits and a referendum on Britain’s EU membership by 2017. Cameron’s proposal to institute immigration quotas ran into opposition from the EU; Germany’s Angela Merkel made it clear that quotas are incompatible with the European principle of free movement.

If a Labour government were formed in the aftermath of the elections, an EU referendum would be unlikely to take place. Arguably more likely, however, is that the elections will result in a hung Parliament in which no party has an outright majority. The growing strength of the Scottish National Party (SNP) and the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), along with the continued, if weakened, presence of the Liberal Democrats, could also mean that Labour or the Conservatives must form a coalition to govern. If the Conservatives were to lose the election, it is likely that David Cameron’s subsequent replacement would be even more Eurosceptic, pulling the party in that direction.
An unknown quantity in the upcoming elections is the strength of UKIP, an anti-EU and anti-immigration party seeing a meteoric rise in popularity. The party has been described as populist, blaming genuine problems of political disconnection and economic inequality on immigration. Questions remain as to whether this populism reflects UKIP politicians’ genuinely held beliefs, or whether it is a cynical effort to stoke discontent and gain votes.

Discussion then turned to the effect a British withdrawal would have on the EU. An exit from the EU would undoubtedly mean that the UK would be faced with much uncertainty, having to renegotiate its access to the European single market and freedom of movement, as well as reevaluate its trade policies and foreign policy outside the European Union. It is impossible to determine at this point which path the United Kingdom will take over the next 2-3 years. However, the United States will be watching the results with great interest.