The Implications of Opting Out

The referendum campaign on whether Great Britain should remain a member state of the European Union (EU) or leave is in full swing. Campaigners for Britain to ‘remain’, including Prime Minister David Cameron, insist that the British government has successfully renegotiated its relationship with the EU. Those who want Britain to ‘leave’ insist that the opt-outs Cameron won are insignificant and untrustworthy; whatever the British government may say, the bureaucrats in Brussels are plotting a ‘super state’ that will usurp British sovereignty.

Against this backdrop, Rebecca Adler-Nissen’s book makes fascinating and counter-intuitive reading. Adler-Nissen looks at how the opt-outs secured by Britain and Denmark in the areas of monetary integration and home affairs cooperation have changed the way that representatives of the two countries behave when they are in Brussels. What she finds is likely to be catnip for the ‘leave’ campaigners. Although the opt-outs technically ring fence the sovereignty of the British and Danish people, they also stigmatize British and Danish representatives who — theoretically, at least — have to leave the room while at the same time justifying their respective country’s exceptional position. In practice, British and Danish diplomats often sit in on conversations where they are meant to be absent while looking for ways to play a constructive role. This pattern for ‘everyday management of the opt-outs’ (p. 3) is not all that surprising on one level (and Adler-Nissen insists it is not ‘dubious’ (p. 181) either). Diplomats always want to be at the table, even if only to listen. Nevertheless, it underscores the power that results from broad acceptance in other countries of the goal of integration while at the same time transforming the opt-outs into ‘a retreat from national sovereignty rather than an expression of it’ (p. 3).

Adler-Nissen’s findings are not entirely one-sided. There is something for the ‘remain’ camp as well. The explanation she offers hinges less on the power of ‘Europe’ than on the norms that underpin European integration — and specifically the goal of ‘ever closer union’. The opt-outs negotiated to safeguard British and Danish sovereignty are less than effective because they are so exceptional. If more countries demanded the same kind of treatment, then there would be less stigma attached to British and Danish diplomats in Brussels. And ‘if the idea of an ever closer Union [were] openly and consistently challenged, opt-outs beyond the UK [would] … become less controversial’ (p. 19). From this perspective, Cameron’s deal with the rest of the EU might be turn out to be transformative both as an example and insofar as it shifts the focus away from creating and ‘ever closer union’. The Danes should be grateful.

Such commentary aside, this is a serious, scholarly book and not an exercise in instant analysis. Adler-Nissen spent years doing multiple rounds of in-depth interviews with large numbers of diplomats to support her argument. Along the way, she has done a great service by underscoring that European integration is sociological as well as political, legal, and economic. As her interviews reveal, relations between Britain, Denmark, and the rest Europe are managed by people who have to interact regularly and on a personal level. These people are all professionals but they are also part of a community — with the whole range of communal emotions, including shame and humiliation, pride and insult. Within this range, the ‘stigma management’ (p. 22) she describes is in response to only very moderate social pressure. By contrast, the ongoing British referendum is an extreme event that is sure to generate more powerful sentiments. We can only hope that Adler-Nissen will use her considerable talents to explore how Britain’s diplomats manage the fallout whatever the outcome.

Opting out of the European Union: Diplomacy, Sovereignty and European Integration. By Rebecca Adler-Nissen. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014. Xii + 253 pp.

This book review was originally published in the June/July 2016 issue of Survival.  You can access the edited version of this review and other book reviews published in that issue here.