The grassroots politics that policymakers accept as necessary for success in the domestic context is viewed as a top-down failure in any other country. The question is whether these two views of reform politics are reconcilable. The answer depends upon two things. One is how much you see politics as a process of give and take between policy advisors, politicians and voters. The other is how much you trust politicians in other countries. Unfortunately, the debate in Europe right now is much more about trust than about process.
The deal reached between British Prime Minister David Cameron and his colleagues on the European Council last week was supposed to transform the relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union on four dimensions – economic governance, competitiveness, sovereignty and immigration. Three of these issues are largely symbolic. No declaration or agreement is going to ensure ‘better regulation’ either in Brussels or in Westminster; British sovereignty was never seriously under threat from the vague aspiration to achieve an ‘ever closer union’; and while immigration is a vital issue, few experts on cross-border labour imagine it turns on access to ‘in-work benefits’ or can be deterred by the indexation of child support. By contrast, economic governance is a vital national interest both for the British people and for the City of London. The question is whether Cameron has managed to improve that aspect of Britain’s relationship with the rest of Europe.
The European Council has delivered an agreement on Britain’s new relationship with the European Union. The agreement acknowledges that the British government has no obligation to engage in further political integration, it recognizes that not every country will adopt the euro as a common currency, it strikes a balance between the need for common rules and the desire for national autonomy in the area of financial market supervision, it stresses the importance of effective regulation for competitiveness, and it introduces a mechanism to phase in the benefits that accrue to workers who move from one member state to the next. These concessions become effective once the British government informs the European Council of the United Kingdom’s commitment ‘to remain a member of the European Union’. The challenge now is for British Prime Minister David Cameron to win the ‘yes’ campaign. At least, that is what it says in the post-summit script. The agreement may just be enough for the British people to play along.
‘There will never be a good a solid constitution unless the law reigns over the hearts of the citizens; as long as the power of legislation is insufficient to accomplish this, laws will always be evaded.’ Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1772)
You can have the best political institutions in the world but if the people who live within them do not want to use them properly, then those institutions will not work. The challenge is to make people want to use common institutions properly and to agree on what constitutes proper use. This is the challenge that Jean-Jacques Rousseau tackled in his ‘considerations on the government of Poland and on its proposed reformation.’ It is the same challenge advanced industrial democracies face today – at all levels of government. Moreover, better institutions or ‘structural reforms’ were not the answer for Rousseau and they are not the answer now: ‘Although it is easy, if you wish, to make better laws, it is impossible to make them such that the passions of men will not abuse them as they abused the laws that preceded them.’