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Who speaks for Europe? The UK referendum as a pan-European affair

The Brexit debate greatly effects Europe yet commentary from EU figures and European heads of state has been surprisingly muted. Why is this so?

Sebastian Zwez/Wikimedia Commons.

It is all too easy to treat the forthcoming UK referendum on EU membership as a purely British affair. Those quirky Brits! Late to the party and subsequently wracked by doubts over whether European integration is a good thing. Certainly, most of the public debate so far has revolved around British-centred questions: is the UK powerful enough to go it alone? Is it getting enough out of the current deal or can it negotiate a better arrangement? But while the referendum is itself a unilateral decision, the outcome will have EU-wide repercussions, especially in the event of a vote for ‘Brexit’. Voices speaking on behalf of Europe thus have a right to be heard, yet as with other EU referendums there is reason to ask who can articulate the European interest and whether such interventions are actually helpful.

Part of the difficulty in identifying who speaks for Europe is the very multiplicity of figureheads in the current EU system. There are no less than five presidential figures: the President of the Commission, the President of the European Council, the President of the European Parliament, the President of the European Central Bank, and the President of the Eurogroup. There is also the EU’s chief diplomat, Federica Mogherini, whose job title is High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. Each of these figures can rightly feel entitled to stick their oar in the UK referendum debate.

Federica Mogherini is on record, for example, as indicating that she expects the UK to remain in the EU. Perhaps tellingly, this comment was made during an event in China. It is understandable why a diplomat would opt to be this discreet, as sticking one’s head above the parapet as an unelected EU official can provoke a backlash. This is exactly what happened during the Scottish independence debate in 2014. The then Commission President José Manuel Barroso cast doubt on Scotland’s ability to join the EU as an independent country, sparking a deluge of counterclaims and criticism. Moreover, polling conducted in the wake of his comment that EU membership for an independent Scotland “would be extremely difficult, if not impossible” showed an even split as voters in both camps interpreted the message as confirming their existing policy preference.

Speaking Europe to Britain

Intervening in the British debate is fraught with difficulty for EU actors since they are largely deprived of their most common rhetorical device, which consists of appealing to a normative commitment to European unity for the sake of continental peace. The classic statement of the genre is François Mitterrand’s slogan “nationalism is war”. Two inter-related reasons make this peace justification for European integration ring hollow to British ears. The need to build supranational political institutions to provide security fundamentally contradicts the twentieth-century island story of pluck and Anglo-American partnership in the face of German militarism. Successive UK governments have responded by explicitly approaching European integration as a purely pragmatic and utilitarian foreign policy. James Callaghan, who as foreign secretary oversaw the renegotiation of Britain’s terms of membership in 1974-75, encapsulated this logic by referring to the EEC as a “business arrangement”. David Cameron’s attempt to do away with Britain’s treaty commitment to “ever closer union” is just the latest manifestation of this tendency.

Consequently, those seeking to speak on behalf of Europe are obliged to engage in cost/benefit argumentation. This means they engage in a debate on what can be dubbed the ‘performative legitimacy’ of the EU, or what the political scientist Fritz Scharpf refers to as legitimising through outputs. In this register what matters is whether the EU has the right policies and executes them well rather than any broader justificatory claims for the very existence of a supranational political entity.

Entering the British referendum debate by lavishing praise – in the midst of the migration crisis, the furore over press freedom in Poland, and the rumbling on of the Eurozone debt crisis – on the EU’s current policy performance is clearly a fool’s errand. Public intellectuals across the continent and beyond have spent the past few years savaging the EU’s handling of the debt crisis in Greece and elsewhere. Attacks on Eurozone policy-makers by Yanis Varoufakis and Paul Krugman found a receptive audience in Britain, especially on the left amongst media figures such as Paul Mason and Owen Jones (the latter recently recanted his support for Brexit).

Hence the battleground for the bean-counting analysis of the costs and benefits of EU membership has shifted from current benefits to the realm of hypotheticals and counterfactuals. One such hypothetical, as articulated by Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker in a direct reference to the UK referendum in his 2015 state of the union speech, is the ability to push forward greater economic integration in the digital arena and get a path-breaking free trade deal with the US. By extension, the counter-factual argument is that these advantages, especially the ability to shape market rules globally as well as in Europe, would not be on offer if the UK was outside the EU club. This matches exactly the advice given by a European leader who knows what it means to be on the outside looking in. Norwegian premier Vidar Helgesen has warned that being semi-detached from the EU would not sit comfortably with Britain’s global political and economic interests.

Speaking Brexit in Europe

This counter-factual reasoning is to be expected: both camps in the UK referendum campaign seek to score points on the basis of what the country’s economic prospects would look like outside the EU. What is more surprising is that European leaders have offered only a benign view of the EU’s position in the event of Brexit. History would suggest that France play a leading role in laying down markers of the difficulties Britain, with its large EU trade deficit, could face when trying to renegotiate access to the single market. After all, French presidents have a track record in determining the UK’s European fate: Charles de Gaulle twice vetoed the UK’s application to join the European Economic Community in the 1960s, while his successor, Georges Pompidou, insisted on holding a national referendum to settle the matter of enlarging the community. So in 1972 it was French citizens who had the final say on approving Britain’s admission to the club – they voted 68% in favour.

On a strategic level, UK withdrawal from the EU has a number of important ramifications, many of them potentially favourable to French interests. France’s permanent UN Security Council seat could gain a new legitimacy as the voice of the EU on the international stage. The absence of a British presence in the EU’s decision-making bodies would make trade and regulation policy more protectionist, as a recent study has shown, in line with the instincts of both left and right French governments. Of course, these are not necessarily good reasons for France to break ranks and militate openly for British withdrawal. What they do constitute, however, are important bargaining chips that would play well amongst a French audience and which in turn can be instrumentalised to remind Britons of what is at stake.

Yet France is not playing this game. During the renegotiation horse-trading François Hollande, the president of France, merely warned David Cameron, the British prime minister, that unilateral concessions were off the table and demanded clarification over the topics under negotiation. The only notable pro-Brexit French outburst to date has come from former prime minister Michel Rocard. More typical though is the position of leading newspaper Le Monde, which used the two-hundredth anniversary of Waterloo to publish an English-language op-ed aimed at persuading UK voters to stay in the EU and avoid their own epic defeat.

So instead of playing a threatening or hectoring role, David Cameron’s EU counterparts have so far intervened in the Brexit debate as deal brokers, or deal breakers, concerning the now concluded renegotiation. It is in this light that such figures have appeared most commonly in the British media. For instance, one of the most well-covered comments on British renegotiation was that of recently-elected Polish premier Beata Szydlo. No EU sycophant, she was vocal in opposing Cameron’s proposals to reduce intra-EU migration by the limiting welfare entitlements available to recently-arrived workers. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the ultimate arbitrator of European consensus even though her own power base is being undermined by the migration crisis, sits in the background. Her occasional pronouncements on Brexit were pored over, as if they were ancient runes, to interpret how many concessions she might approve.

Thus the UK referendum debate has so far only had a muted pan-European dimension. It is definitely not a repeat of the Greek vote on the proposed Eurozone bailout deal in July 2015. That took place in the context of a Europeanised public space in which Oxi (no) became a rallying call for a broad coalition of supporters of an alternative to austerity. The Greek referendum, however, looks much more like an outlier than the norm. Referendums on EU treaties in France, the Netherlands, or Ireland have all been – like the Brexit drama – rather self-centred affairs revolving around the impact of European integration on narrowly-defined national interests. Even the same treaty can spark different arguments: French voters were treated to endless argument about the implications of the EU Constitutional Treaty on socio-economic rights, while Turkish accession to the EU was a leading concern during the Dutch vote.

What probably makes the UK campaign even more solipsistic is the absence of strong pro-EU voices from within Britain. Hostility to the EU, unlike in comparable European countries, is nurtured by a neo-liberal elite with influential media ties. Supporters of the EU in the UK have to contend with entrenched Euroscepticism across the print media. This querulous public discourse drowns out more neutral analysis and also inflects anti-EU sentiment by dredging up issues tangential to the membership question per se. As Timothy Garton Ash has argued, such a situation makes it all the more important for European figures to insert a positive message about Britain’s place in the EU.

In this regard, however, the most comparable referendum experience might be the vote on Scottish independence in 2014. Businesses and public figures from the rest of the UK found it very hard to engage with the Scottish debate precisely because the meaning and value of unionism, beyond mere transactionalism, had become so impoverished. Both the unionist message and its messengers were easily dismissed as part of a negative mindset – dubbed “project fear” – incompatible with a new, self-confident Scottish exceptionalism. When the British in/out vote is itself understood as a manifestation of political exceptionalism it is obvious why outside voices find it difficult to put forward a positive vision about the UK’s European vocation. That means the Brexit vote ultimately will be won or lost on British terms. 

About the author

Andrew Glencross is a lecturer in International Politics at the University of Stirling, United Kingdom. He has published extensively on the interplay of law and politics in the European Union, and on the development of European integration more generally. His most recent book is The Politics of European Integration: Political Union or a House Divided?.


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