Britain’s membership of the European Union, according to politicians who support the EU, has never proved to be a big deal on the doorstep during general election campaigns.
But the conflation of two topics – the EU and immigration – plus the rise of the party that has linked these topics, Ukip, looks increasingly likely to be a game-changer in May 2015.
I have been noting over the past couple of months the growing response on newspaper websites to articles about EU membership. Whenever they concern migration numbers, as most do, participation rises.
Take the story posted on the Telegraph site yesterday morning about the report in Germany‘s Der Spiegel suggesting that the chancellor, Angela Merkel, would accept Britain’s departure from the EU if David Cameron restricts the flow of EU immigrants.
At the time of writing, this had resulted in more than 2,700 comments. Their reactions ranged from support for Cameron’s supposed intention, trenchant criticisms of Merkel and anti-EU rants plus a dose of anti-German insults and the usual obscurantist detours.
There were plenty of similar views expressed in the 1,600-plus comments below the Guardian‘s article (page 1 in the paper), “Merkel warns UK heading for ‘point of no return’ on EU”.
The Daily Mail ran the story in its paper as the page 10 lead and online, “Germany ready to accept British exit from Europe.”
It was presented along with a tweet by Ukip leader Nigel Farage: “German paper Der Spiegel reports Berlin wants UK EU exit if we try and limit immigration. Still think you can renegotiate, Mr Cameron?”
This article attracted almost 3,500 comments, some 3,000 more than any other story on Mail Online.
The Times‘s reference to Merkel’s alleged comments was included in its splash, “Block all benefits for EU migrants, No 10 urged”. The article began:
“Migrants from the European Union would no longer have their wages subsidised through tax credits, under plans being considered in Downing Street.
No 10 is examining a further migrant benefit clampdown after a furious Angela Merkel forced a retreat on the imposition of quotas on EU arrivals.”
This attracted more than 50 commenters, way more than under any other Times website news story.
As for the Independent, there were almost 200 comments beneath its story, “Merkel warns Cameron is at point of no return on EU”, another high score for that paper’s website.
The same story on the Express site, “Accept EU rules or quit, Angela Merkel tells Britain”, got 100 comments, which doesn’t sound like many, but was 50% more than appended to any other story on a site that usually attracts very few commenters.
A scan of those comments suggests than the outcome of the Express poll, “Should Britain just leave the EU right away?”, is guaranteed to be an overwhelming Yes.
In case readers needed an extra push in the right direction, the Express leading article, “David Cameron must now call Angela Merkel’s bluff”, repeated its usual message: give us an in-out referendum so we can quit the EU.
The Sun also called on Cameron to call Merkel’s bluff. “We don’t see Merkel wanting to be left alone to prop up Europe’s failed economies,” it said.
In addition, the Financial Times‘s article, “Merkel warns Cameron over freedom of movement within EU”, got 460 comments, another notable large scale of reader participation.
Taken together, this adds up to huge concern about the EU-migrants debate. Politicians who think the electorate will dwell on “the economy stupid” when they decide how to vote next year would do well to note this growing surge of interest.
Indeed, with the apparent return to some form of economic stability and high levels of employment, it is much more probable that so-called secondary matters – such as EU membership – could prove to be a decisive electoral factor. And underlying that EU hostility/apathy is the super-charged topic of migration.