Published on January 25th, 2013 |
by Katharina Obermeier
Image © Christopher Elison / Flickr / 2007
The Unwilling European
The speech made this week by British Prime Minister David Cameron was eagerly awaited by many, cheered by some and decried by many others. For those who have been calling for a referendum on the UK’s membership in the EU, it offered the distant hope for 2017. For the militant supporters of the UK Independence Party, it was a feeble compromise. And for those unfamiliar with the British brand of pragmatic euroscepticism, it offered some important insights.
Cameron essentially vowed to work towards major EU treaty changes which would allow the UK – and possibly other countries – to bring certain areas of policy-making, such as social and labour legislation, back under exclusive national control. He also promised that after this renegotiation, if he was still Prime Minister, the government would hold a referendum on whether or not the UK should remain in the EU. While he claimed that he himself would strongly advocate continued EU membership for the UK, this would have to be on the UK’s terms, after a successful renegotiation of what he termed the balance of powers between the member state and the Union.
While this is of course a very significant development, it does not exactly come as a surprise. The British have traditionally been among the greatest sceptics of the European project, and the eurozone crisis has not helped them warm to the concept of an economic, monetary and social union. In fact, the Prime Minister referenced many of the conventional arguments employed by British eurosceptics in his speech, many of which stem from an unfortunate ignorance of how the EU works and what it is trying to achieve. One of them is that the only benefit the European Union poses for the UK is the single market, and that anything beyond this comprises “unnecessary rules and regulations” which the country is forced to suffer as a result of Brussels’ overreaching bureaucracy. The problem with this argument is that it does not take into consideration what the single market actually means in the EU: the free movement of goods, services, capital and people. In turn, this requires regulation for all four categories, logically producing European laws not only in areas such trade and competition, but also on banking, immigration, labour standards and data protection. Therefore, it is impossible to try to separate a “single market” agenda from the EU’s legal framework as a whole.
Cameron put forward another argument which is very popular among eurosceptics- it is the idea that the British people never planned to join the European Union in its current form, as the referendum of 1975 only referred to the European Economic Community (EEC), the EU’s less well-developed predecessor. This would be very convincing if the EEC had truly only been a common market. In fact, the EEC was already developing strategies for economic and monetary union in the early 1970s, and even created the Exchange Rate Mechanism which served as an early version of a common currency. The UK even participated in this system of fixed exchange rates until it was forced to leave in 1992 when it could no longer support the pound sterling at the fixed rate. It therefore seems particularly disingenuous of British politicians to lament the fact that they could not have seen in which direction the European project was headed.
Finally, the Prime Minister expressed another popular sentiment among eurosceptics by paraphrasing Enoch Powell: “There is not, in my view, a single European demos.” This is an argument that is highly insulting to those of us who consider ourselves part of such a European demos, who vote in elections for the European Parliament and who look beyond national means of identification to consider the broader interests of the European and international community. Of course, Cameron was pointing out that many British citizens feel that the EU lacks democratic accountability. In doing so, he ignored the schools of thought on supranational governance which argue that as our world becomes more globalised, democratic representation should no longer be constrained to just national political institutions, but should instead move towards regional and international means of governance. In this area, the EU with its directly elected Members of the European Parliament is the most advanced model we currently have in the world.
Does all this mean that a UK referendum on EU membership is a bad idea? Not necessarily. If a majority of British citizens vote to stay in the Union, it will strengthen the EU’s legitimacy. And if it turns out most Britons do not want to stay, then at least everyone will know where they stand. As Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti commented on the proposed referendum, “the EU does not need unwilling Europeans.”