Is it conceivable that Britain will leave the European Union? A few years ago this question would hardly have been worth asking. In the past 12 months, however, the issue of EU withdrawal has shot into the British political headlines.
The latest, and apparently most authoritative, such headlines appeared this week, after a pugnacious speech by George Osborne, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and second most powerful figure in the British government. Reuters headlined the Chancellor’s comments like this: “Reform or lose us as a member, Osborne tells the EU.” The Daily Telegraph highlighted the same message: “Osborne warns Britain may leave EU over reform failure.” The BBC headline concurred: “Osborne – Don’t force UK choice between euro and EU exit.”
While the idea of a British EU exit has now become so mainstream that “Brexit” is a universally recognized acronym among diplomats and financiers, no British politician of Osborne’s seniority has previously threatened so explicitly to pull out. But does this really mean that Brexit is becoming more likely?
Osborne’s rhetoric may sound strident, but actually it suggests the opposite conclusion when British politics and European economics are taken into account.
Starting with British politics, David Cameron, the British Prime Minister, leads a fractious coalition between his mostly “Euro-skeptical” Conservative Party and the fervently “Europhile” Liberal Democrats. The Cameron coalition faces a general election in May 2015. And the biggest threat to the government’s survival comes not from the opposition Labour Party, but from a hemorrhage of right-wing votes to the UK Independence Party, an upstart populist movement whose main objective is British withdrawal from the EU.