Thursday 12 July 2012

Some notes on the UK's EU debate

After yesterday's post on the UK and the European Social Contract, which was written from the general point of view of the Member States and the compromises between their national social contracts, I thought I'd just note a few aspects of the current public debate in the UK on the EU. I'll not cover any specific groups, but just the general state of the public discussion.

1. Renegotiation for...? Despite all the talk of bringing back powers from Brussels, there isn't exactly a clear idea of what powers should be brought back. Social policy seems to be the only area that's highlighted, but the tone of the debate suggests that it matters more that a big victory is achieved by the UK for bringing a policy area home (and that the papers can run with this), rather than there being a specific goal. While it's understandable that the government wants to keep its cards close to its chest so it's easier to claim a victory, if there's such a public groundswell against the EU relationship, it's remarkable that it hasn't crystallised into a key demand yet.

2. The Internal Market as an Ideal. The internal market is viewed as an ideal in isolation to the rest of the EU and simply as a free trade zone, whereas it's deeper than that and requires an extension of the national social contracts (into a form of European Social Contract like I argued yesterday) to maintain its legitimacy.

3. There is no set of plans or reforms that have been demanded for which repatriation of powers is necessary. This links into the previous points, since it's very vague what areas the government will seek to bring home, and the social contract aspect of the EU isn't fully understood (not that it is elsewhere, but there does tend to be a greater understanding of the connection between economy and society in these terms). How does the UK want to change its own social contract? There have been arguments in the UK over financial regulation and whether it should be made easier for businesses to fire people. The lack of ideas and debate about what the UK will be following this repatriation of powers is amazing. What is the UK prevented from doing - or what kind of country is it prevented from being?

4. A referendum on a negotiated settlement could easily fall prey to a Eurosceptic (right) - (ambivalent/more pro-EU) left-wing alliance too. Without a clear sense of direction or purpose over what the UK will do or become with repatriated powers, there is a danger that a referendum would fail due to an alliance between Eurosceptics who reject it as too weak, and those who fear that the national social contract will be redrawn in a way they don't want. I would guess that as the debate becomes more specific over policy areas (e.g. social policy), there will be more questions raised over what will be done with these powers (e.g. maternity leave). It will become easier to paint the renegotiation as an attempt to achieve deregulation and a shrinking of the state, and this may feed in to the referendum campaign.

5. Assumption of alliances. I mentioned this yesterday that for renegotiation there is an assumption that the Northern Europeans want the UK in the club to balance out the others and will help the UK with its deal. However, if the UK withdraws from more legislative areas or sets that as its goal, then it signals that it will be a less useful and influential ally in the future for these countries, making it less attractive for these Member States to spend their political capital in Britain's favour.

It seems to me that there needs to be a debate on how the UK wants to change itself and how it sees itself as a country before it decides how it wants to change its relationship with the EU.


  1. Some of these points came up in your previous post, but I'll add my 2 cents:

    1. Yes, the UK government (understandably) wants to play its cards close to its chest, but it's actually much easier to identify specific demands than you're implying. As I argued before: opt-outs on the Working Time Directive and the European Arrest Warrent + guarantees over financial regulation are probably the minimum. The Fresh Start green paper is a serious start to the discussion, and Hague's review of the impact of EU law on the UK (launched today) will also add to the debate.

    2. This is, as I've argued in my last comment, possibly a question of political ideology. I'm not convinced that a European social contract has greater legitimacy than a national social contract. In fact, I'd argue exactly the opposite.

    3. Don't dismiss the importance of "bringing a policy area home" so readily. Doing so would set an important precedent, underlining the fact that power can potentially be transferred in both directions. It would go a long way to disproving the "ratchet effect" argument that has become such a mainstay of British euroscepticism.

    4. This may be true, but if a referendum in the UK becomes politically inevitable then its an issue that has to be confronted sooner or later.

    5. A transfer of powers coupled with an in-out referendum that sees the British choosing to remain inside the EU might do nothing to halt the creeping stranglehold of euroscepticism over British politics. But, right now, it's about the only thing that has a chance. The UK is slowly falling out of the EU anyway, with or without a formal referendum. This is a chance to turn things around before they go too far.

  2. Can a stranglehold be creeping? Apologies for the mixed metaphors.

  3. 1. I hope that they do add to the debate and that they are debated seriously: I was commenting on the debate as it stands now in the general public.

    2. I don't think the European Social Contract is greater or has more legitimacy than the national ones. I see the European one as an extention of the national ones into the European stage (that are reflective of European assumptions of the role of the state and regulation/the role of the market). To undermine or break down the European one is to open up more competition on undercutting national social contracts which are broader and deeper. An ecomonic space with rules on, for example employment protection, that differ too much may undermine the social contracts of other Member States and damage their confidence in the internal market (as being "for them" or the undercutting states as "hijacking" the market and threatening their societal norms).

    3 - 5. We differ a lot here. I think it is much better to force a debate on the areas under discussion and to talk about how the UK views itself as a society (social and economic norms and rules, etc). Simply going for a "power return and EU membership consolidation" strategy wouldn't provoke people to think about where the UK stands on these points, and where it stands in relation to the rest of the EU on them. In the end some repatriation of powers may be demanded and required, but the question of "how different are we really?" in these areas needs to be asked. The pro-Membership side need to act as a pro-active voice and to ensure that there is a real reconsideration of the relationship. If you don't point to the value of thinking or debating these areas and the relationship in these areas, then a similar disregard will be held for the rest of the EU relationship. In other words, it's not just the narrative of the one-way flow of powers that should be challenged, but the political idea of the internal market without a social and cultural context.

  4. You are completely missing the point. It's about democracy!

    We were conned by our own government to join this dictatorship. We were not told that the EU would take over nearly every aspect of our lives. We were not told that it would lead to a political project or the vote in 1975 would have been a NO!

    We were told (and voted on)a common market, a trading area. We were misled and lied to. The EU is not a democratic institution. We simply want out and control of our lives again.

  5. Sue,

    Democracy has to be established at the European level, where the greatest challenges have to be solved, among them the worsening euro crisis.

    Sadly, the UK has been at the end of extreme resistance to all democratic reform of the EU, although the rest of the member states have been lousy too and those among the root causes of the troubles.

  6. Actually, you're absolutely right. It IS about democracy, and I'm convinced that (from a constitutional standpoint) an in/out referendum on EU membership is the right thing to do. As A.V. Dicey put it, it's a weakness of the British unwritten constitution that there exists "the possibility... which no one can dispute of a fundamental change passing into law which the mass of the nation do not desire [because] there is under the English Constitution no marked or clear distinction between laws which are not fundamental or constitutional and laws which are fundamental or constitutional."

    British membership of the EU does indeed, to my mind, represent a fundamental change. I think it's a necessary and justified change, and I think a referendum can be won (the majority opinion in the UK is that, so long as certain powers are repatriated from the EU, Britain should remain a member). But even assuming a referendum would inevitably be lost, it wouldn't change my mind. The decision, whether in or out, needs to be legitimised through a referendum.

  7. There should be a referendum, but there should be a full debate on all the issues and on what kind of relationship the UK wants with the EU. If this doesn't happen, then the renegotiation is less likely to correspond to what people want.