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Published on January 25th, 2013 | by Katharina Obermeier
Image © Christopher Elison / Flickr / 2007

UK Passport on Euros

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.”

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About the Author

Katharina Obermeier

Katharina considers herself a German-Canadian hybrid. She grew up in Germany and completed her BA in International Relations at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. Politics, especially in relation to concepts of nationality, have always fascinated her, and she is particularly interested in international political economy. During her studies, she was an avid participant at Model United Nations conferences, and helped welcome international exchange students to her university. She is currently completing an internship at a Brussels-based trade association and hopes to work in European affairs in the future. In her political writing, Katharina marries social democratic principles with a keen interest in the European Union and its implications for European politics and identity. She writes to counteract simplistic ideas about politics and economics, continuously attempting to expose the nuances and complexities involved in these subjects.

  • Iain Waterman

    Thought this was an excellent article Katharina, making some very good points on why EU membership is beneficial.

    I have to contest you on one thing though! Since you work in Brussels, its understandable that you see the positive sides of integration; you say:

    "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."

    I disagree. Regional and international governance may (arguably) be the future, but for now the EU is 'running before it can walk' – even before questions of monetary/fiscal union are answered, political power is already being drawn away from sovereign nations to a centralised body. Put simply, what right do a group of officials in Brussels have to tell independent nation states what they can and cant do? The case for political integration effectively says that nation states should not be responsible for their own affairs, which, in my view, is quite ridiculous. There are so many sectors in which member states of the EU can work together – energy, defence etc, but a country should not be forced to submit powers within its own borders that it doesnt want to.

    A very UKIP argument I know, but take immigration – why should a country NOT be allowed to decide who comes through its borders?

    • eurojunkie

      Thanks for the comment Iain. I definitely agree with you that several of the different layers of integration in the EU are out of sync, which is one of the reasons the eurozone crisis escalated so much.

      With regard to immigration, I understand that it is a sensitive subject in many member states – however, as I point out in my post, the centralisation of immigration policy is essential for maintaining the four freedoms in the EU. If a person immigrates to one member state of the EU, and becomes a permanent resident/citizen, they should naturally be allowed to enjoy the same freedom of movement within the EU that is afforded to citizens born in the EU, otherwise they are subject to discrimination. Therefore, it makes sense for EU member states to coordinate their immigration policy to ensure everyone is happy with the level of scrutiny, etc that is applied to incoming immigrants.

      I think concerning the broader question you are asking, we have very different ideas of what a "sovereign nation" is. To me, sovereignty of the nation-state (and the accompanying ability to do whatever it wants within its own borders) is merely a social construct of international relations, with no inherent or objective reasoning behind it – it's just an order of governance that was essentially agreed in 1648. I would argue that the world has changed a lot since then, to the point where we have to question whether it actually makes sense for most governance to occur at national level. Of course, in the last century or so, the legitimacy of the nation-state has been reinforced by the development of democratic structures of accountability, which tend to be centred around the nation-state. However, there is no inherent reason why things have to be this way – as I argue above, the EU already contains strong democratic mechanisms which can lend legitimacy to regional/supranational governance.

      A good way of looking at this is to consider regions within countries. In Germany, for example, the Laender have historically been very strong and independent, and only reluctantly gave up their "sovereignty" to a higher system of governance – that of the nation-state – but they did so in most areas of policy-making because it was obvious that it was most efficient and effective to govern on a national rather than a sub-national level. Why shouldn't the same apply to member states with regard to the EU?

      Lastly, the EU operates by the principle of subsidiarity, meaning that it is only supposed to pass legislation when it is more efficient to do so on a European rather than a national level. This is why EU Directives are often quite broad in nature, and leave a lot of room for member states to maneuver. You can question whether that is always the case, but according to its principles of operation, it's not supposed to infringe on areas that are purely the concern of national governments (e.g. it will pass a law on high-level principles of data protection, but the way in which these principles are implemented will be up to each member state to determine).

      Sorry for the essay – I always enjoy reading your articles and thought your question deserved a detailed answer 🙂

      • Iain Waterman

        Thanks for the compliment Katharina – the respect is mutual!

        You put your case for further integration really well, but I dont think you take the importance of nation states seriously enough. Its all very well to argue that, based on political theory, widening systems of governance from the national to the European level makes sense and that it is the future of our political system, indeed I might actually agree with you. But I dont think that time is now – as is the case with so many relationships, Europe is 'moving too fast!'

        Moreover you argue that the Westphalian system is just one system of governance that makes less and less sense right now. Notwithstanding that the world is very different from then, the fact that this system has been reinforced by democratic processes is entirely the point – our system is democratic and moving powers to Brussels weakens this. From my understanding, Brussels has quite an opaque form of bureaucratic government that doesnt lend itself to democracy. Again, I agree with you that in the future, this may well be a more efficient option.

        Finally, I can see that in theory, the EU is only supposed to control policy where it is more efficient to act regionally rather than nationally, however in practice this is not the case. Last week on the Daily Politics they were discussing just this, and although I cant remember the exact number, a staggeringly high amount of control is being seized by Brussels at the expense of national control (it was something stupid like 3000 areas of policy per year move to Brussels). By contrast, not a single piece of policy control had been relinquished by Brussels back to national governments during this time. Again, according to theory, this may be a more 'efficient' way of governing, but it is also afront to national sovereignty, which we have come to rely on to represent the interests of each country – I don't believe Brussels should be allowed to tell Britons they must accept something they do not want to – who are they to decide?

        I think on many policy areas there is substantial merits for cooperation, but ultimately I cannot rely on Brussels to have my best interests at heart – thats why we elect British politicians for national government.

        • eurojunkie

          I find it interesting that you consider policy-making in Brussels to be opaque – I would say it's just as opaque/transparent as any national government as it works in a similar way. The Executive (the European Commission) proposes legislation, which can then be amended and approved or rejected by the two legislative "houses", the European Parliament and the Council. This holds for the majority of EU legislation – in areas which are considered very sensitive or essential to national interest the Council has to unanimously approve legislation. No doubt the negotiations taking place within the Council are opaque, but this is because national governments want to protect their sovereignty! In the Parliament, on the other hand, debates and votes are transparent (and web-streamed, in case anyone is interested). So the Council is made up of democratically elected national governments, the Parliament is directly elected by European citizens, and each Commissioner has to be approved by the Parliament (which is not a rubber-stamp by any means, the Parliament has been quite active in vetoing prospective candidates for the last two Colleges of Commissioners).

          Maybe think of it like this: I'm sure in the UK sometimes legislation is passed which benefits the South more than the North (and vice versa), and which impact their daily lives. I'm sure Northerners are unhappy when this happens but they wouldn't ask "Who are these Southerners to decide what happens in our territory?" or call for the North to leave the UK. This is because their democratically elected representatives were involved in the decision-making process and they recognise the benefits that being part of the UK brings them, and that sometimes the greater national interest has to trump individual/local interests. This is perfectly analogous to how it should be (and is in many EU member states) concerning member states' relationship to the EU. Sometimes, the UK will have to accept legislation which its citizens might not like because sometimes the greater European good trumps the interests of one member state. The UK's representatives were involved in the decision-making process through the UK government in the Council and through the Members of the European Parliament directly elected by British citizens. How is this any different than what regions within countries accept as perfectly normal today?

          I think what people have a hard time realising is that "Brussels" is not a faceless bureaucracy – it is national governments and MEPs making decisions on behalf of the European citizens who elected them. It's about shared responsibility and solidarity, which sometimes, like in any democratic system of governance, means that the majority overrules the minority opinion. That does not mean the minority should withdraw from the system of governance.

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  • I definitely agree with you that several of the different layers of integration in the EU are out of sync

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