Erik Jones / Feb 2016
David Cameron, UK prime minister. Photo: European Union
The European Council has delivered an agreement on Britain’s new relationship with the European Union. The agreement acknowledges that the British government has no obligation to engage in further political integration, it recognizes that not every country will adopt the euro as a common currency, it strikes a balance between the need for common rules and the desire for national autonomy in the area of financial market supervision, it stresses the importance of effective regulation for competitiveness, and it introduces a mechanism to phase in the benefits that accrue to workers who move from one member state to the next. These concessions become effective once the British government informs the European Council of the United Kingdom’s commitment ‘to remain a member of the European Union’. The challenge now is for British Prime Minister David Cameron to win the ‘yes’ campaign. At least, that is what it says in the post-summit script. The agreement may just be enough for the British people to play along.
There is plenty of reason to doubt the outcome. The campaign Cameron has chosen rests heavily on misdirection and suspension of reality. The agreement reflects both elements. It is a misdirection insofar as the precise terms of the agreement do not touch on the heart of popular disaffection with Europe. The British people are unhappy because they fear the erosion of sovereignty, the influx of foreigners, and the economic insecurity that comes from engaging in a global economy. The people are also fed up with their governing elites. Populists like the United Kingdom Independence Party’s (UKIP) Nigel Farage have focused this fear and frustration on the question of European Union membership. Cameron and his European allies hope that they can distract popular concern by pretending that marginal concessions will make their fear go away. It is a suspension of reality insofar as no one looking at splintering of European leaders around the ongoing migration crisis can seriously imagine that an ‘ever closer union’ is a threat to British sovereignty. It would be wonderful if Europe had a united response to the migration crisis but there is no sign that will materialize (which has to raise questions about why the phrase ‘ever closer union’ creates such a fuss). Similarly, is hard to imagine the universe where tensions between Britain and the euro area vanish, particularly on a subject as sensitive as financial stability. The fight brewing over banking supervision between Italy and Germany suggests that tension exists within the euro area as well. In more general terms, better regulation is a bromide on sale at all levels of government that even the most loyal consumers find hard to swallow. And economists have warned repeatedly that temporary restrictions on in-work benefits, include child benefit, are not going to have a noticeable impact on the number of foreigners seeking employment in the UK.
More fundamentally, the strategy rests on the paradox that David Cameron wants to settle the Europe question once and for all while the whole point about being ‘a membership of the European Union’ as opposed to some kind of sub-federal unit like a U.S. state is that the relationship between the ‘member’ and the ‘union’ should remain unsettled. You can see this paradox most clearly in the requirement that the British government must inform the European Council that it has chosen to remain a member state before the concessions negotiated at the recent summit can take effect. The implication is that this referendum will be Britain’s last and that the answer will be irreversible. (Cameron even used the word ‘irreversible’ in his letter to European Council President Donald Tusk last November, albeit with the goal of ruling out ‘ever closer union’ in a ‘legally-binding’ way.) No other member state would ever make such a commitment. Just think about the number of times the Irish and the Danes have gone to the polls; now think about the French and the Dutch. The fact is that retaining the option to leave – no matter how unpleasant or unfavourable that option may look both for the member state in question and for the rest of Europe – is the essence of national sovereignty. Surrendering that option would be a true betrayal of the nation state as the ultimate focus for popular allegiance and hence also democratic legitimacy. That is the lesson we learned from Greece. Even membership in the euro area is not wholly ‘irreversible’.
In the best-case scenario, the British people will believe that the agreement reached at the European Council summit makes a substantial change to Britain’s relationship with Europe, they will set aside their fears and vote ‘yes’ to continued membership. For their part, Britain’s European partners will believe that this renewed popular commitment to British membership is irreversible and hence the United Kingdom will become a committed member state. In the worst-case scenario, the British people will reject the agreement, they will vote to leave Europe, and they will discover to their dismay that the forces they fear most have only become stronger as a consequence. The most likely scenario falls somewhere in between. The British people will pretend the agreement is enough to justifying staying in Europe and the rest of Europe will pretend that the United Kingdom is committed to remain. Neither side will believe in the irreversibility of their positions, but they will try to avoid asking any more awkward questions – at least for a while. This will make it easier for Europe’s leaders to focus their attention on other matters. Given the number of pressing issues the European Union has to confront at the moment, that should count as a ‘win’.