The British referendum sent shockwaves across Europe. Contrary to expectations, the vote to Leave defeated the vote to Remain by 52 to 48 percent. The turnout was high and the outcome was uniformly distributed. The only major exceptions were the votes in favor of remaining in the European Union (EU) cast in London, Northern Ireland, and Scotland. Without those areas of support, the vote to leave would have been even more decisive. The explanations are mostly negative. The English voted overwhelmingly against outside interference, elites, experts, and immigration. They also voted against ‘fear mongering’. What they voted for was a mixture of self-determination and something different. How they will use that autonomy remains to be seen. At the moment, the British ruling elite is too engaged in soul-searching and leadership contests to offer much in the way of vision.
There is a growing chorus of disenchantment with Europe and populist parties are preaching anti-European slogans across the member states. Today’s British referendum on European Union (EU) membership is only the most extreme manifestation of that disaffection. Whatever the outcome, the turmoil surrounding popular attitudes toward Europe is not going to end. The reason is a lack of vision.
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.
The British referendum is based on (at least) two bad ideas. The first is that the popular legitimacy of a referendum can restore the sovereignty of the British parliament. The Leave campaign believes they can take power from Brussels and give it back to Westminster. That is a fantasy. The British parliament will be more constrained and less effective if the UK leaves. The second bad idea is that referendums are more democratic than acts of parliament (which is the kind of decision that brought Great Britain this far in its relationship with Europe). By giving the people the chance to speak their mind on a yes-or-no (in-or-out, remain-or-leave) question, we can discover what they really want. That is not how people work. Real people prefer trial and error. Real people also like to delegate responsibility for making complicated decisions. This matters because the two bad ideas combine to make the worst of all possible worlds. Britons who vote to Leave will discover that they have made a terrible mistake only to learn that there is no easy way to fix it.
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.
Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi gave an interview to the Financial Times shortly before Christmas to criticize the impact that successive waves of austerity are having on political stability in southern Europe. The interview had particular resonance in the aftermath of the Spanish national elections. Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy was in many ways Europe’s ‘best’ student in terms of economic policymaking. Rajoy not only narrowly escaped the doom loop that tied the fate of the Spanish government to the solvency of its banks, but he also avoided the indignity of falling under official European economic tutelage. He has not always does as told by his European counterparts but his government is often held us as a model of successful macroeconomic adjustment and fiscal consolidation in the face of crisis. His ‘reward’ has been a splintering of the Spanish electorate and a hung parliament. For Renzi, the fate of his ‘friend Mariano’ is an inevitable consequence of Europe’s obsession with austerity.
Between the euro crisis, the refugee crisis, tensions within the single market, and anti-European political extremism, the European Union appears on the surface to be failing. This isn’t quite true though. Every time Europe faces a setback, it tends to make progress in response. This progress is usually only partial (or incomplete), but it is enough to lay the foundations for more comprehensive solutions to emerge in the future. What looks like failure is actually ‘failing forward’, a dynamic that Dan Kelemen, Sophie Meunier and I examined in a recent article in Comparative Political Studies. The latest incarnation of this concept is the recent developments – or lack thereof – at the December 2015 European Council summit, which was supposed to shore up European financial markets by pushing ahead with the construction of common institutions to safeguard European banks.