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The (Smart) Politics of EU Posturing

- January 24, 2013

The following is guest post from Princeton University political scientist and the Director of Princeton’s European Union Program, Andrew Moravcsik.


David Cameron’s call for a referendum is a transparent domestic tactical maneuver, 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. By calling for a referendum, Cameron silences criticism from the virulently Euro-skeptic right-wing of his party and forges a rhetorical tool to peel support from the extreme-right UK Independence and British National Parties. Moreover, the prospect of a referendum threatens to split Labor, while uniting the Tories—at least through the election. 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 symbolic IOU, 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. Unsurprisingly, the principles invoked here do not withstand close scrutiny. The most basic one 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.”

No doubt some in the Tory party sincerely believe this, but it is either trivial or disingenuous. It is trivial because the EU already enshrines a single market. It is disingenuous because, while calling for single market liberalization in services, energy and digital products, the British government would like greater “flexibility” and power “to flow back to the member states.” Cameron cloaks this in democratic rhetoric: many British citizens, he says, want to shed invasive regulation by Brussels bureaucrats and return to a “common market.” What he does not say is that, of course, the common market for goods was completed in 1970. Since then it has been impossible even to contemplate liberalization of anything, even goods, let alone things like services or energy, without some common regulations to control non-tariff barriers and mutually recognize domestic procedures. So regulation and liberalization go hand in hand.

Moreover, in practice what greater “flexibility” means is a greater range of selective opt-outs of specific market liberalizing policies, which British special interests seek to exploit 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.

Of course it is easy to conclude, as have the usual Continental observers, that the British position is simply a short-sighted smokescreen for political and economic self-interest. Those who believe this should read the second half of Cameron’s speech, which is strongly pro-European, and they should contemplate his 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. And 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, while admittedly somewhat risky, 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 voters. Fourth and finally, while the arguments for membership are overwhelmingly positive. It is ironic that the British are the most dissatisfied with EU arrangements, because the truth is that over the past quarter century the EU has evolved significantly to realize Cameron’s vision. (Such is the nature of majoritarian misrepresentation.) Outside of the single market, the British vision of the EU has in fact already been 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. Progress seems underway in negotiating arrangements to manage relations between ins and outs in finance and banking.

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 reflects the deplorable tendency to treat the EU as an ideological scheme rather than a pragmatic compromise born of interdependence, and thus as 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, just as no politician in a government in any of the 27 member states favors withdrawal. 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. Every one of its member states is in it to stay.

In other words, far from being the radical threat to Europe that the Brussels beltway pundits fear, Cameron 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.