Danny KEMP

Europe woke up on Friday to the cold certainty of an unprecedented British referendum after David Cameron’s election win, with two years of tough negotiations ahead to prevent a so-called “Brexit”.

Work was to start quickly at the European Union’s headquarters in Brussels after Cameron, whose Conservatives look set for a surprise majority, confirmed his intention to let Britons vote in 2017 on membership of the bloc.

But while the rest of Europe has said they won’t keep Britain in the club at any price, the unexpected result could increase Cameron’s negotiating power and make it more likely that Britain stays part of the EU, analysts and officials said.

“The risk of Brexit is strongly reduced today, because Cameron has just received a full mandate and his position in his party has been strengthened,” a senior European diplomat in Brussels told AFP.

Mats Persson, director of the Open Europe think-tank, said that after months of “posturing” Europe would now take the referendum seriously because it was a “new event, we have never seen something like that before. It’s huge event for the EU.” “It’s now getting real for people,” Persson told AFP.

Referendum ‘winnable’

In his victory speech on Friday after an election that will apparently end five years of coalition with the europhile Liberal Democrats, Cameron said the new government “must hold” a referendum “to decide Britain’s future in Europe.”

Cameron has vowed to renegotiate London’s relationship with Brussels and then go to the electorate, saying he wants Britain to remain in a reformed EU.

Friday’s result in Britain is the starting gun for what are likely to be bruising negotiations over the coming two years, beginning with a European summit in June at which Cameron is likely to set out the reforms he wants.

A top EU official told AFP however that the referendum “is winnable.” “We have to wait to see what he wants to negotiate. We certainly have work to do,” the official said, adding: “I think that will start pretty quickly”.

The mood music from Brussels has been more melodious in recent weeks, with European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker last week opening the door to minor changes to the EU’s treaties.

With the British election coming as much of Europe celebrated the 70th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day (VE Day), the theme of European unity was much on the minds of many in Brussels.

But Juncker, along with most EU leaders, have rejected out of hand any fundamental changes such as limiting the free movement of people inside the EU, which Cameron has demanded.

“The British are wrong if they think their partners are ready to pay a heavy price to keep them in, especially if that price deprives the whole European project of any meaning,” another European diplomat told AFP in Brussels.

‘Nasty’ debate

However there was an increasing feeling in Brussels on Friday that Cameron’s strong majority at home could smooth his path and thereby help keep Britain in the EU.

“The most important outcome of UK elections is that Cameron could now be a strong leader of his own party, which is key for the coming nasty Brexit debate,” said Jan Techau, director of the Carnegie Europe think-tank. “Mr Cameron will claim that he has a strong mandate. But he needs to come out clearly with what he wants from Europe,” Techau told AFP.

The failure of Nigel Farage and his anti-EU UK Independence Party in the election - Farage did not win a parliamentary seat - made it easier for Cameron to sell EU membership to the British public, diplomats said. “Cameron can now organise issues how he likes around the economic advantages of the EU, which he understands,” the first European diplomat said.

Pollsters another casualty of stunning election

James PHEBY

The Conservative party’s unexpected triumph in Britain’s general election delivers a hefty blow not only to the routed Labour party, but also to the pollsters who predicted a dead heat.

“The pollsters need to go off and interrogate themselves and poll each other to find who has been telling porkies to whom,” concluded Conservative London mayor Boris Johnson. “It’s extraordinary that 11 polls on the eve of the election should get it so wrong.” For months, the main survey-takers had the two parties neck-and-neck, flatlining at around 35 percent each.

Only one day before the elections, YouGov, ICM and Survation called it a tie and three other polls published by TNS, Opinium and ComRes gave the Conservatives the narrowest of leads.

Panelbase gave the Tories a two-point lead while all the newspapers wrote that a hung parliament was a certainty.

But when the first exit polls emerged as stations closed on Thursday at 2200 GMT, the shock was total, giving the Conservatives 27 seats more than the most optimistic of pre-vote polls and 77 more than Labour.

Those on the receiving end at first refused to believe the survey, recalling the memory of 1992 when the exit polls erroneously predicted a Labour victory. If anything, the exit polls underestimated the scale of the Tory gains and Labour and Lib Dem defeats.

‘Not our greatest moment’

Former Liberal Democrat leader and campaign chief Paddy Ashdown, who were only predicted to win 10 seats, said he would “publicly eat his hat” if the results were correct.

On latest projections, the Liberal Democrats were set to get eight. “What seems to have gone wrong is that people have said one thing and they did something else in the ballot box,” explained Peter Kellner, president of YouGov. “We are not as far out as we were in 1992, not that that is a great commendation,” he told the Daily Telegraph.

Following the 1992 debacle, the pollsters redeemed their reputations by correctly predicting the difficult 2010 result, which led to a Conservative/Lib Dem coalition. But they are now back to square one after the latest slip-up.

“The election results raise serious issues for all pollsters,” admitted Populus in an official statement issued Friday. “We will look at our methods and have urged the British Polling Council to set up a review.”

Tony Travers, professor of politics at the London School of Economics, said the failings may be due to “a late surge” or “a methodological issue or long-term shy answering”.

The conservative electorate is traditionally shy to pronounce its preference beforehand, and pollsters have often tended to overestimate Labour.

The most apparent failing appears to be in translating the percentages of voting intentions into the right number of seats, a tricky task in Britain’s system in which coming second in a seat counts for nothing–AFP

“The distribution of the seats may not be our greatest moment but in other areas I think we have done quite a good job,” said Michelle Harrison from TNS.

She told Sky News that they had predicted many of the night’s broad trends, including the almost total success of Scottish nationalists, who devoured Labour north of the border, and the disastrous impact of five years of coalition on the Liberal Democrats.