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Political grab for Euroskeptic vote threatens to undermine European Union

UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s push for an early referendum on membership indicative of anti-EU mood across continent

Euroskepticism looks set to weigh increasingly heavy on the European Union, with British Prime Minister David Cameron’s vow of a speedy up-or-down vote on the U.K.’s continued membership the latest blow to those in favor of the political and economic bloc.

He said Sunday he supported moving up a proposed 2017 referendum on his country’s role in the European Union — an overture to those in and outside his party who want to end the U.K.’s participation in the 28-member group. Lurching to the Euroskeptic right to shore up the vote is not the preserve of British conservatism; it is an increasingly common tactic by politicians across the continent.

On bringing forward a vote on EU membership, Cameron told the BBC on Sunday, “If I think we could do that earlier, I would be delighted. The sooner I can deliver on this commitment of a renegotiation and a referendum ... the better.”

He had already stated his support for a referendum should his Conservative Party win the general elections slated for May of this year. Its outcome is far from certain, and pressure from a rival party with a harder line on Europe is pulling Cameron and his party away from the union more quickly than ever, analysts say.

“In the U.K., a challenge from the U.K. Independence Party [UKIP] has moved Prime Minister David Cameron toward a much tougher line on immigration and toward support for an in/out referendum on EU membership in order to win national elections in May,” said the Eurasia Group, a risk consultancy, in its annual preview of top global risks for the new year, which were released Monday.

The move in the U.K., the Eurasia Group said, is part of a broader trend on the continent, where a “populist surge requires a move by the establishment parties toward more Euroskeptic positions to ensure they remain in power.”

Parties like UKIP, which staunchly reject the European Union and criticize immigration policies seen as overly lenient, have done well across Europe since the 2008 global financial crisis and especially after the eurozone recession in 2012. Though the U.K. is not part of the eurozone, the political reverberations of EU infighting have been significant.

“I want our democracy back. I want control of our borders back. I want us to be able to negotiate our own deals on the world stage,” said Nigel Farage, the UKIP’s leader, during an interview with Sky News, calling Cameron’s statement insufficient. 

Buoyed by skepticism of open borders and supranational government, the UKIP has made headway in local U.K. elections the last two years, and in the 2014 European Parliament elections it took more votes than either the Conservative Party or Labour.

But the sentiment animating much of the UKIP agenda does not end at the U.K.'s borders. The 2014 European Parliament elections witnessed a wave of Euroskepticism across the rest of the continent.

France has seen a strong anti-immigrant, Euroskeptic resurgence with the rising political fortunes of its National Front party, which scored one of its biggest electoral pickups in years in 2014 local elections.

Even Germany, which traditionally has been one of the EU's biggest supporters and which has arguably benefited most from the eurozone, has not been immune from a rise in Euroskepticism. Alternative for Germany, a political party that emerged last year, has pressed to end the country’s use of the euro and and espouses skeptical attitudes toward immigration in the country, even if it officially does not oppose the political union as such.

Euroskepticism has not been strictly the domain of the political right in Europe. In Greece the self-described radical leftist party Syriza has criticized EU policies that it says place onerous burdens on the Greek economy. Syriza is leading the polls ahead of Greek elections later this month — which many experts attribute to Monday’s drop in the value of the euro to its lowest level in nine years.

While the threats to the region’s economy have subsided somewhat since the height of the eurozone economic crisis of 2012, the political union is still challenged on many fronts, undergirded by the uptick in populist discontent and competing fiscal agendas by eurozone members.

Disagreements between Germany and France, the eurozone’s largest members, underscore the difficulties of reconciling those divergent national agendas in one body.

Under the leadership of Chancellor Angela Merkel, Germany has used its economic and political position to push fiscal austerity and low inflation. But that has rankled eurozone members with higher unemployment and those who have called for additional public spending to allay economic misfortune.

One of the results of this lack of consensus, the Eurasia Group noted in its 2015 outlook, is that Euroskeptic parties are “challenging establishment parties that have lost political legitimacy. Their rise has been dramatic, shows little sign of slowing and will become politically meaningful” this year.

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