David Cameron’s call for a referendum is a transparent domestic political maneuver. Above all, it is designed to strengthen the Conservative position in upcoming elections scheduled for 2015. His government will have difficulty surviving the next popular vote. Risks must be taken, and right-wing support will be critical, given the unrepresentative nature of the British majoritarian electoral system, which (like the American one) strengthens right-wing extremists on the European issue in various ways.
In contrast to Continental proportional representation systems, which relegates radical right Euroskeptics to fringe parties where they rarely gain power, the British majoritarian “first past the post” system has incentivized them to exploit intense minority sentiment to colonize the backbenches of the Conservative party. They have focused on capturing the candidate selection process, just as radical right-wingers have exploited American primary elections to colonize the backbenches of the Republican Party. The result in Britain is that an electorate that is essentially moderate and apathetic about Europe is feeds and cares for about one hundred rapid Euroskeptics. One can make a good career of irresponsible and often factually incorrect rhetoric, which keeps the issue alive in Europe in a way it is not alive on the Continent, where not a single major politician in the governing party of any of Britain’s fellow EU members has, to my knowledge, ever called for a referendum on membership in the European Union. The Euro is a different issue, but oddly British skeptics lack this justification for their anger.
By calling for a referendum, Cameron hopes to silence criticism from this virulently Euro-skeptic right-wing of his party, as well as to forge a rhetorical tool to peel support from the extreme-right UK Independence Party (and perhaps also the British National Party, though it has slipped into near irrelevance). Moreover, the prospect of a referendum threatens to split Labor, while uniting the Tories—at least through the election—a partisan tactic that has often served as a motivation for leaders to call EU-related referendums elsewhere. For Cameron, the real benefit of this approach is that it is so cheap. Rather than giving right-wing Euro-skeptics something real, he offers them a vague and symbolicIOU, not to be cashed in until 2017 or 2018—an eternity in modern politics.
Of course it is in the nature of politics that a domestic tactical maneuver by a British Prime Minister must be disguised behind high-minded principles. There are two ways to view the principles Cameron enunciates in his speech. The usual crowd of high-minded Continental observers have concluded that the British position is simply a short-sighted smokescreen for political and economic self-interest. A good case can be made for this, since the principles Cameron cites—like most political principles—cannot withstand consistent scrutiny.
The most basic principle underlying Cameron’s position is that the EU should focus more on liberalizing the single market and bolstering European competitiveness. Cameron said: “At the core of the European Union must be, as it is now, the single market. Britain is at the heart of that Single Market, and must remain so.” He justifies this not only because it is good, but because it realizes the principle of “fairness.” Cameron also cloaks this in democratic rhetoric: many British citizens, he says, want to shed invasive regulation by Brussels bureaucrats and return to a “common market.”
No doubt some in the Tory party sincerely believe this, but it is to a large extent either trivial or disingenuous. It is trivial because the EU has long had a common market. It was completed in 1970. Since then the liberalization of anything, even goods, let alone items like services or energy, has required the dismantling of non-tariff barriers. And this, in turn, requires common regulations, mutual recognition of domestic procedures, and enforcement by oversight of domestic activities. In the modern world, regulation and liberalization go hand in hand—particularly in the areas where Britain would like to see forward movement.
Cameron’s support for “common market” liberalization is disingenuous the British view of free trade, like everyone else’s, is highly selective. While favoring single market liberalization in areas of British comparative advantage, such as services, energy and digital products, the British would like greater “flexibility” and power “to flow back to the member states” elsewhere. One of the other principles enunciated in the speech is greater “flexibility,” which for the British means is a greater range of selective opt-outs of market liberalizing policies that offend British special interests, in areas such as fishing, farming, and banking—hardly an agenda for “competitiveness.” This combination of principle and self-interest is replicated with regard to other issues. Cameron calls for closer cooperation against terrorism and organized crime while his government seeks opt-outs in policing and security. He calls for closer cooperation to deal with the Eurozone crisis but fewer binding restrictions on British banks. He presents the overall goal as improving Europe, but of course a primary concern is to strengthen the British bargaining position in coming negotiations over a treaty-based resolution of the Eurozone crisis.
For these reasons, it is easy to be a cynic about Cameron’s speech. Yet those who are inclined to this position should read it—particularly its longer second half. That section is strongly pro-European, boldly making the case for why Britain must be in Europe, for why the EU is a legitimate and necessary organization, and for the utility of much of what it does. Moreover, cynics should reflect upon Cameron’s underlying political position. True, losing the upcoming parliamentary election would be bad for the Tories, but in the (unlikely) eventuality that they win it, almost as bad would be to lose the subsequent referendum. Cameron is condemned to be a pro-European, no matter what.
The historical truth is: the surest path to success as a right-wing European leader in countries like France and Britain is to exploit a reputation for opposing Europe in order to move closer to it. Consider the cases of President de Gaulle, who exploited his reputation as a Euroskeptic avant la lettre to promote the centralization of the customs union, the common external tariff, the CAP, a common fiscal policy, and decision-making; Nicolas Sarkozy, who exploited his anti-enlargement credentials to reform the French constitution to permit the EU to enlarge; and Margaret Thatcher, who did more to promote the Single Market than anyone else, including Jacques Delors. This “Nixon goes to China” gambit always pays off politically. Cameron is a skilled political operator, and he will grab the chance. For the next five years, he will shape the rhetoric on Europe in Britain, with the goal of winning the referendum.
When the time comes, if he is still in office, Cameron should be able to wage and win the referendum campaign easily—or, as European leaders are want to do these days, lose it once, renegotiate, and vote again until the public gets it right. Referendums are treacherous ground, but the political and rhetorical terrain will likely be advantageous. This is so for four reasons.
First, as Cameron points out in his speech, British investment, trade and foreign policy prestige are overwhelmingly dependent on EU membership.
Second, in part as a result, he will have powerful allies. British big business and finance will intervene massively in favor of membership. The sitting government and opposition will both weigh in on the same side. Foreign governments, notably that of the US, will favor it.
Third, a strict up or down decision in a referendum has the virtue of being clear—in contrast to the wooly and confusing referendums held on the vaguely worded European Constitution. It will also be a vote for the status quo, which is always favored by referendum voters. This framing of the issue, while admittedly somewhat risky, is the best possible terrain on which to wage a referendum campaign.
Fourth and finally, the British government will not have to secure “concessions” in upcoming negotiations; it simply needs to repackage what it already has. Notice how strategically vague Cameron is in the speech about what exactly it is that Britain wants: more Europe but less Europe pretty much lets a future government call anything a success, even a rebranded status quo. It is ironic that the British are the most dissatisfied with current EU arrangements, because the truth is that over the past quarter century the EU has evolved significantly to realize the vision Cameron sets forth. (Such is the nature of majoritarian misrepresentation.) Outside of the single market, the British vision of the EU has in fact already been all but achieved. The intergovernmental European Council has emerged as the preeminent EU institution, dominating both the Commission and the Parliament in most areas. Enlargement has been the greatest success of the EU over the past decades, and continues to evolve. The single market, deepened along lines set forth by Thatcher and Lord Cockfield, has become the central pillar of Europe. The EU is now, in practice, a “coalition of the willing” operation in areas such as social policy, monetary policy foreign policy, and free movement of people. The percentage of laws in Europe subject to EU oversight is stable at about 10-15% of the total. Policies in areas such as police, internal security, and foreign policy are subject to more intergovernmental arrangements. Finally, on the major issue Cameron set forth in his speech, namely an arrangement to manage relations between ins and outs in the Euro, finance and banking, the outlines of an agreement are already clear. Is Britain really going to complain about all this because of dissatisfaction with the bathing water directive?
Much ink will be spilt over this issue in the next five years—much more than it deserves. We already see the ritual predictions that Britain leave the EU, or that others should force it to leave if it does not recant its heresies. This tendency to endlessly debate European theology and to flagellate those whose domestic political system requires that they justify Europe in different words reflects the deplorable tendency to treat the EU as an ideological scheme rather than a pragmatic compromise born of interdependence.
These rhetorical tempests in teapots has the added disadvantage of making Europe seem a perpetually fragile construction: a bicycle likely to fall over if it is not ridden resolutely forward. Nothing could be further from the truth. Despite all the whinging on the right, almost no serious politician in Britain actually favors pulling out—which is why Cameron’s negotiate then vote then we’ll see in five to seven years waffle is so popular amongst the Tories—just as no politician elsewhere is keen to commit economic suicide. The basic truth is that European integration has now been around for more than 60 years, longer than most democracies in modern Europe, and it is here to stay. Because in most matters, it is essential to sensible management of highly interdependent economic, social and political issues, every one of its member states is in it to stay as well.
In other words, far from being the radical threat to Europe that the Brussels beltway pundits fear, Cameron’s speech is, in the distorted mirror-house that is British debate on Europe, oddly pro-European. He essentially proposes to postpone the issue until 2017, and then to claim credit for trends that have long been established, defending the status quo with a broad centrist coalition behind him. Smart politics.
This is a revised version of an essay that appeared on 24 January 2013 on the blog, The Monkey Cage.