Facing up to the impending UK referendum on the European Union

05 January 2016

Professor Tony Payne - Deputy Director at SPERI

The best way to counter the threat constituted by the referendum is to show that the EU can be remade to work better in the democratic service of its citizens

At some point during the course of 2016, either in the summer or the autumn, it looks as if that fateful moment when the British people decide whether or not their country stays a member of the European Union will at last arrive. As so often in politics, ‘events, dear boy, events’ may still conspire to delay the decision until 2017, but it looks likely at present that the Prime Minister, David Cameron, wants to get the issue decided sooner rather than later. In other words, the referendum is coming, and is probably coming quite soon. There is no longer any point in complaining that it emerged from the Prime Minister’s political weakness within his own party and that he could, and should, have faced down the demands of his own members for a decisive ‘In-Out’ choice. The referendum has to be confronted in full recognition of the reality that it has the potential to be seismic in its impact on British politics and political economy and Britain’s future place in the world.

It also needs to be understood that referenda by their very nature are crude, simplifying devices. The question posed is always direct – in this case, ‘Should the UK remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?’ – and the only answer permitted is the expression of a binary choice – in this case, ‘Remain’ or ‘Leave’, as the options have already been framed. Voters cannot respond by saying ‘yes, but only if…’, or ‘no, as long as….’. This means that the campaign in the UK, which has not really yet got going, will unavoidably be drawn into a battle between literally non-sensical positions – to put the respective cases colloquially, either that the EU has been a great thing for Europe and the UK would be mad to leave; or that the EU has been an unbearable imposition on British freedom and autonomy and the UK must seize this opportunity to get out. There won’t be much room for nuance once the politics starts flying around our heads.

Herein lies a huge problem for the ‘Remain’ cause and campaign. Assessing the state of the EU at the beginning of 2016 even from the starting-point of an inherently supportive perspective, itself derived from no more than a basic grasp of recent history, it’s simply not possible to argue with any credibility that the European integration and co-operation project built up so painstakingly since the late 1940s is in good shape. There is too much too obviously wrong with the way that the EU has lately been run – indeed perhaps with the way it has always been run. There is no point in seeking to itemise these defects here: they have been much discussed and embrace even in recent times a raft of major failings, including excessively austere recent management of the Euro economy, the sharp divisions that have lately opened up about the free movement of people into and inside the EU and the seeming inability of the Union to articulate and defend Europe’s position within a fast-changing and globalising political economy. The latter constitutes a special disappointment, given that so much early support for European integration, especially on the centre-left, derived from its promised capacity to stake out some ongoing social democratic terrain in the face of the onslaught of neoliberal globalisation.

Photo by Red Dot on Unsplash

The key political point here is that a progressive ‘Remain’ position must not allow itself to be trapped in the upcoming referendum campaign in a place that is uncritical of the contemporary EU. That simply will not play with the current mood, as best we can discern it from polling evidence, of the British people.   Instead, it has, somehow, to perform the trick of arguing as persuasively as possible what has unavoidably to be a nuanced case. It needs, in short, to call for major reforms of the EU, but do so from a standpoint that recognises in the EU too vital a geo-economic and geo-political structure for the UK to walk away from. This sort of case (which is easy to mount in the academic and intellectual arena), is notoriously difficult to pull off in the rough and tumble of 24/7 modern electoral politics. It must be seriously questioned as well whether the UK presently has any politicians – whether Cameron for the Conservatives or on this issue Alan Johnson (who is not even the party leader) for Labour – capable of displaying the gravitas, flexibility and cunning needed to carry such a task through to a successful outcome. Nicola Sturgeon will probably be able to deliver a majority ‘Remain’ vote in Scotland, but where is the leader capable of setting out for all of the peoples of the various nations of the UK a compelling and optimistic vision of where the UK can fit happily into the contemporary European and global order?

Nevertheless, this is surely the task and it is unfortunate that some on the left, such as Owen Jones, have run away from the challenge in favour of a short-sighted embrace of the idea of ‘Lexit’. Even a journalist (and SPERI International Advisory Board member) as hard-headed in his analysis of political economy as Paul Mason has lately considered, and seemingly taken seriously, the notion of ‘Brexit’ as an ‘economic opportunity’. This is a dead-end alley and it’s puzzling that it appeals as much as it apparently does, especially when there is another powerful argument that left thinkers and politicians can and should now be making about the EU with all their available energy. This focuses on the key question of democracy and asserts in a nutshell that the EU was undemocratic in its inception, has been run consistently from a technocratic (and therefore anti-democratic) mind-set and has now accumulated such a debilitating ‘democratic deficit’ that the latter has become a major threat to the EU’s very survival.

This argument has been developed most powerfully in Germany through the voice of Jürgen Habermas, the eminent philosopher and leading public intellectual. Even though he is now eighty-six years old, Habermas has engaged the debate about the future of Europe energetically and cleverly. Although deeply critical of Germany’s management of the Eurozone economy and especially its treatment of Greece, he has remained a passionate advocate of a united European project, albeit one that needs to be deeply and seriously further democratised. Habermas takes the view that embedded national capitalisms of a social democratic or even a social market hue have run their course, overtaken by the power of globalising markets. Even powerful European nation-states, such as Germany, France and the UK, can no longer manage this power without peril to their different social orders and are finding with each new day that their many post-1945 social and political achievements are disintegrating before their eyes.

This is certainly what many of the people of Europe, including the people of Britain, seem to be seeing with growing starkness of vision. They have to be persuaded that that these achievements can best now be defended and enhanced by proper democratic stewardship at a regional (that is, EU) level – that the EU can in effect be remade to work better in the service of its citizens. This is really what the UK referendum campaign needs to be about, not silly discussions of how to reclaim and retain a mythical sovereignty that has long disappeared anyway in conditions of globalisation. Of course, the argument about building a sustained democratic order across the institutions of the EU needs to be translated into a popular idiom, and that isn’t going to be easily done from where the debate about Europe in the UK presently starts. But this is without doubt the challenge and it is the responsibility of democratic politicians to find ways of rising to it.

Habermas provides the critical clue. We can’t produce our own Habermas in time, but we don’t need to: this is after all a European issue and he is, like us, a European. We can read Habermas in translation; we can think hard about his analysis and draw the obvious conclusions; above all, we can and must press our political leaders and most influential commentators to do the same and then urge them to frame the whole ‘Remain’ campaign in accordance with the call for a renewed European-level democracy demanded by Habermas.

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