Quitting the European Union would be bad for Britain. Membership of even an unreformed EU is better than “Brexit”. Quitting would mean either not having access to the single market – at a huge cost to the economy – or second-tier membership.
The debate over Brexit has moved into high gear in the past 10 days, after the UK Independence Party – which wants Britain to pull out of the EU – performed well in English local elections. The Conservative party, which rules in coalition with the pro-European Liberal Democrats, has been thrown into turmoil because UKIP has been winning votes largely from the Tories.
What’s more, many Conservatives would like Britain to quit the EU too. Last week Nigel Lawson, one of Margaret Thatcher’s finance ministers, argued the case for Brexit. Boris Johnson, the mayor of London who is the Conservatives’ most popular politician, also shuffled a little further in a eurosceptic direction – although he stopped short of calling for an exit.
David Cameron himself has not shifted his position. He wants to hold a referendum in 2017 after he has had a chance to renegotiate Britain’s relationship with the EU in so far unspecified ways. But he may be tempted to tacitly support legislation to call a plebiscite in an attempt to embarrass the opposition Labour party which has so far refused to back such a vote.
Despite the increasingly anti-European tone of the debate, the overall likelihood of Britain quitting the EU hasn’t really changed since the local elections. True, the probability of the British people voting in favour of staying in the EU in a referendum has fallen. But the chance of such a plebiscite taking place has also probably dropped – because UKIP’s rise makes it less likely that Cameron will be reelected in 2015.