What's next for the Liberal Democrats


On June 24, 2016, British Prime Minister David Cameron had to admit defeat - against his recommendation and that of his government, the majority of British people, including the majority of his party's voters, voted in favor of leaving the EU. Cameron failed above all with his political bet to fill the European political rifts within his party with a referendum, which he believed he could win with economic arguments about the high costs of leaving the EU. The exit vote will shape the UK and Europe for years.

In order to deal with the United Kingdom in the future and to ensure the continued cohesion of the remaining 27 EU countries, it is important to understand how the British EU referendum came about. How could the referendum even come about? How did the campaigns go and what contributed to the victory of the EU opponents? And last but not least: What issues and priorities have moved the British to vote for the exit?

Path to the EU referendum

Holding a referendum on the EU had been controversial in Great Britain for years and was long rejected by the government and parliament. As early as October 2011, a group of backbenchers from the Conservative Party forced a vote in the House of Commons on an EU referendum to be held. The British government - then a coalition of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats led by Prime Minister David Cameron - strongly opposed it. The government believed Britain's interests were best served within the EU. Nevertheless, 81 of the then 306 Conservative MPs voted against the explicit requirement of their own party for an EU referendum. Overall, the parliament voted against an EU referendum with 483 to 111 votes. [1]

Although the majority of the Conservative MPs voted against the referendum, David Cameron made a historic strategic shift almost a year and a half later and in January 2013 promised the British that same vote on EU membership if he was re-elected as prime minister. At first glance, the starting point for this change of heart was the growing EU skepticism among the British population. The United Kingdom has traditionally played a special, distant role in the EU. As early as 1973, unlike in the founding states of France and Germany, it was primarily economically motivated. As the "sick man" of Europe at the time, the British government wanted to regain access to the European market by joining the European Community. [2]

While the British strongly supported projects such as the creation of a common internal market, they were critical of further political integration. Since the Maastricht treaties, Great Britain has only been willing to support further steps towards integration if it was granted exceptional rights - for example with the euro (Maastricht), the Schengen area (Amsterdam) or the Charter of Fundamental Rights (Lisbon). Even during the comparatively pro-European positioning of Prime Minister Tony Blair, the main motivation for EU membership remained the single market.

This narrative came under increasing pressure in the UK in the wake of the European debt crisis. While the country itself recovered from the effects of the economic and financial crisis at least as a whole from 2011 onwards, the daily crisis reports from Greece and the other euro countries created the image of an economically collapsing euro zone, which was now perceived as the greatest risk for the British economy. As a result, the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) rose to the third largest party in Great Britain in the voter polls. In the 2014 European elections, with a low turnout, it was even the strongest party with 27 percent. [3] According to David Cameron, the democratic legitimacy of British EU membership was only razor thin - it needed a new confirmation in the form of a referendum. [4]

Cameron's risky double strategy

On closer inspection, however, Cameron's promise to hold a referendum had domestic, if not domestic, political reasons. Within the Conservative Party, a minority of very EU-skeptical MPs increasingly demanded that the British government should take a harder line on the EU. Tied to the Liberal Democrats as coalition partners, the most European-friendly of the British parties, the government did not comply with these demands. There was also increasing fear among the Tories that UKIP might take away decisive votes from them in the British majority vote and thus pave the way for a Labor government. The European political split within the Conservative Party that had existed since the early 1990s threatened to pose a serious threat to Cameron's leadership position.

The domestic political context explains Cameron's strategy: In his Bloomberg Europe speech in January 2013, he did not simply announce an EU referendum for the British as prime minister. In his role as party chairman, he made the referendum conditional on being re-elected as prime minister in the 2015 parliamentary elections.

His strategy consisted of two parts: First He wanted to ensure a truce within the Conservative Party, since both EU opponents and supporters could unite behind the referendum promise. EU-skeptical Tory MPs in particular were able to campaign against UKIP in their constituencies by holding the prospect of a referendum, and against the Labor Party, which rejected the referendum. This part of Cameron's dual strategy has largely worked, as the Conservatives were largely unanimous on EU issues in the 2015 general election. UKIP gained significantly in the 2015 general election, but the Conservatives only lost one seat in parliament. Instead, UKIP managed to win over many Labor voters. [5] This is one of the reasons why Cameron surprisingly achieved an absolute majority with the Conservatives in the 2015 parliamentary elections.

Secondly his plan had a European political component: Cameron announced as early as 2013 that he would use the referendum vis-à-vis EU partners as a means of exerting pressure in order to implement reform and a "new position for Great Britain" within the Union. [6] Originally, he wanted to get involved in treaty changes for the euro zone, which were considered politically probable at the time. However, he had to give up these plans after his re-election. In a shuttle diplomacy and accompanied by consistently critical positions on the EU, Cameron conducted this renegotiation between June 2015 and February 2016 in order to bring about EU reforms in four areas: internal market, sovereignty, the relationship between euro and non-euro states and migration.

However, this part of the dual strategy did not work: Although the European Council, consisting of the heads of state and government, approved a reform package for Great Britain on February 19, 2016, [7] this fell far short of expectations in the eyes of most British commentators who woke Cameron himself. [8] Above all, he achieved symbolic concessions: for example, the commitment to the internal market, the removal of Great Britain from the goal of "ever closer union" and further steps towards integration of the EU as well as a right of national parliaments to veto EU decisions. This "red card" always applies if at least 55 percent of parliament decides against a legislative initiative by the EU. While the EU states did not grant the UK protection rights vis-à-vis the euro area, they responded to UK demands on freedom of movement by agreeing to an "emergency brake" that could limit social benefits for immigrant EU citizens. The strict control of migration, as demanded by EU critics in the Conservative Party, was not achieved.

Although Cameron spoke of a historic success immediately after the agreement in February 2016, which offered Great Britain "the best of two worlds" [9] - in the EU but outside of Schengen and the euro - he hardly ever appealed during the campaign his diplomatic "achievement".