Can Europe Make It?

Brexit and the law of unexpected consequences

The exit of Britain could contribute not to disintegration but a consolidation of authoritarian governance in the European Union.

John Weeks
3 June 2016

Anti-democratic rules

The recent launch of a progressive organization in favour of EU membership should come as welcome development. This complements the 15 June conference in Greenwich (open to the public), “The Progressive Case for Staying in the European Union”, when MP Keir Starmer and the general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, Matt Wrack, will speak.

As part of the launch of Another Europe is Possible, Yanis Varoufakis wrote, “Brexit...would hasten the disintegration of the EU”. Whatever the likelihood of this outcome, another sinister consequence should capture our attention. The exit of Britain could contribute not to disintegration but a consolidation of authoritarian governance in the European Union. By “authoritarian” I mean regulations and rules that remove political, social and economic decisions from the electoral process at the national and EU levels.

The current anti-democratic tendencies in the European Union represent political developments over several decades. The global financial crisis accelerated these tendencies through the draconian “bailout packages” designed in Brussels. Ad hoc and non-legislative measures facilitated their implementation, most notoriously in Greece, but also with less negative media in Ireland, Italy, Portugal and Spain.

The Maastricht “convergence criteria” and its lineal descendents, culminating in the so-called Fiscal Pact (Treaty for Stability, Coordination and Governance), present the most obvious authoritarian vehicles. As I have shown elsewhere, these putative fiscal rules mandate bad policy and more importantly legally restrict national governments’ ability to set policies on taxation and expenditure. The limitations on taxation and spending imply broader policy limitations, such for social protection.

All but two governments (Britain and the Czech Republic) endorsed the anti-democratic Fiscal Pact through a democratic process. Not satisfied with legislation that might be repealed through simple majority voting in national parliaments, the ratification process specified that governments write the pact into their constitutions, much most governments have done. The Fiscal Pact with its embedding in constitutions does more than constrain policy.  

It severely limits public sector deficits contrary to rational economic policy and makes these budgets subject to review by Brussels. As a result the embedded Fiscal Pact reinforces the reactionary forces in each country that oppose social protection programmes and effective functioning of the public sector.

If Britain leaves

No one should doubt that British exit from the European Union would have a profound effect on the coherence of the remaining members. A consolidation on non-democratic governance could be as likely as the Varoufakis scenario of EU disintegration. Post-Brexit authoritarian consolidation would follow because all British governments have and would serve as restrains on further political and economic integration.

A “united Europe” might once have been a progressive goal. In this era with the ideology of austerity dominant in Brussels, further economic integration threatens democratic governance across the continent.

The current Conservative government opposes further integration for both ideological and practical reasons. Whether “Leavers” or “Remainers”, with few exceptions all Conservative politicians make clear their opposition to delegating further powers to Brussels. Because of George Osborne’s continued failure to eliminate our public sector borrowing, it would prove politically embarrassing for the British government to adopt the strict deficit rule of the Fiscal Pact.

For the Labour Party the shadow chancellor John McDonnell has made it clear that his party would not accept constraints that create barriers to pursuing a social democratic social support system or countercyclical fiscal policy. Brexit would leave the European Union with no government opposed in both principle and practice to restrictions on and oversight of national budgets by Brussels.

It is common knowledge that many in the German government, including the finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble, favoured the expulsion of Greece from the euro zone last summer. A year later German political opposition to the current “bailout” of the Greek financial sector and the expulsion implied by that opposition is even greater.

The exit of Britain could allow the German government to consolidate its EU leadership, expelling the “weak” to create a hard-line fiscal bloc in the euro zone with support from the governments of Austria, Finland and Netherlands, as well as newer members (e.g. Estonia and Latvia).

The German government and its supporters in other countries would deny that their approach to the European Union is anti-democratic. These fiscal hawks consider it essential that every government operate within strict constraints that prevent public policy from degenerating into irresponsible “populism”.

This vision of constrained democracy prompted Schäuble’s infamous comment in early 2015 in response to Syriza’s election victory that “Greek politicians must not promise more than they can deliver”; i.e., the end of fiscal austerity. 

While not overtly authoritarian, this atavistic fiscal ideology necessarily implies that important economic decisions affecting everyday life should not be trusted to the judgement of the majority. Like children, national populations need protection against their proclivity to make foolish decisions. Brexit would facilitate the consolidation of this neo-Platonic approach to policy in which the wise few guide the foolish many. 

Why it matters

Come Brexit we will be rid of the European Union, so what difference would it make to us if authoritarian practice gathers strength? The answer is simple: political developments on the continent impact on Britain and beyond.

Abandoning the European Union could have the effect of conceding the political field to an emerging economic policy hegemony that is fundamentally anti-democratic. An EU consolidated around anti-democratic governance would lay the basis for greater tensions and perhaps even conflict in Europe.

The current British government has few virtues to recommend it to progressives, and we can accuse no British government of playing a consistently support role in the process of trans-European cooperation.

However, in the present historical moment anti-democratic tendencies gather strength across the content. Resisting to those tendencies requires that Britain Remains not Leave, and in doing so rekindle the grand purpose of the post-war visionaries, Europe based on democracy, peace and cooperation.

[Follow John Weeks on twitter]

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