The European Union has been the ghost at the feast during this British election campaign. Whilst discussions of the EU have hardly figured in the campaign, its outcome will decisively impact upon Britain relationship with the Union.
The most obvious illustration of this would be a Conservative victory resulting in another government led by David Cameron. Under such circumstances, a referendum on British membership would be held before the end of 2017. In fact, given that both France and Germany have elections in 2017, it is quite possible that a Cameron government might choose to hold a popular vote in 2016, the logic being that it would be easier to extract concession from key partners before they enter election mode.
If, however, Labour were to triumph – or at least to come sufficiently close to a triumph to be able to form a government – the situation will be very different. Ed Miliband resisted significant pressure from both within and outside his party to promise a referendum. There seems little prospect that he will change his mind at this stage.
For as Long as Miliband is in charge then – and unless the incoming cohort of Labour back benchers are both particularly rebellious and particularly eurosceptic – there will be no popular vote. Yet this is not to say that those committed to British membership of the Union should automatically hope to see a Labour government.
In the event that a Labour Government is formed, one of the first things that would happen is that David Cameron would be ousted as leader of the Conservative Party. And the lesson of his own election to the leadership is that promising to adopt a eurosceptic approach (in his case, vowing to take the Conservatives out of the European People’s Party) appeals to that particular electorate - which includes both Members of Parliament and the party membership. Thus, candidates to succeed Mr. Cameron are likely to stress their eurosceptic credentials – which might include, for instance, guaranteeing not to campaign for continued membership in the event of a referendum.
Thus, were Miliband to become Prime Minister, he would almost certainly confront a Conservative Party whose leadership is more hostile to the EU than the current one. This matters because it is now inconceivable that the UK will not hold a referendum at some point in the medium term future.
In terms of the form a referendum campaign might take, this hinges crucially on the political situation in the country at the moment a vote is called. Under a Cameron government, a referendum almost certainly would see all three major British parties campaigning to stay in the Union (it is hard to imagine Cameron would openly claim to have failed in his attempt to ‘renegotiate’ the British settlement with the EU). All the mainstream political establishment (together, presumably, with the Scottish Nationalist Party) would be ranged on the side of continued membership. Alongside them would be the majority of large businesses, all too willing, as during the Scottish referendum, to point to the dangers of breaking with the status quo. As for the media, whilst much is made of the bitterly eurosceptic tone of particularly the popular press, it seems likely that only the Daily Express would come out in favour of Brexit.
Under such circumstances, and for all the recent success of insurgent parties such as UKIP, most commentators expect a strong vote in favour of continued EU membership. Indeed, throughout much of the last two years, public support for that membership has increased.
The alternative scenario is one in which a Labour government either concedes a referendum, or another election leads to the creation of a Conservative government committed to a popular vote. A more eurosceptic Conservative Party might not, in this case, campaign for continued membership. It would then be an open question as to how much of the traditionally Conservative supporting media would swing towards exit. It would then be far harder to be certain how the British people might vote.
All this, of course, is pure speculation. Much can happen between now and a referendum, and much of this is outside the control of the British government. A resolution of the ongoing crisis in the Eurozone and healthier growth rates in continental Europe would prevent Britain’s skeptics from complaining quite so readily about the dangers of being ‘shackled to a corpse.’ What is certain is that, for all its absence from the campaign, a key outcome of this election will be to determine the future of Britain’s relationship with the EU.
Anand Menon is Professor of European Politics and Foreign Affairs at King's College London in the United Kingdom.