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.’
When critics want to explain why the European Union (EU) is in crisis, they usually point to the euro or the Schengen Agreement. These are areas of vital national sovereignty, they argue. A government without a currency cannot preserve its national competitiveness and has no status as a lender of last resort. A government that cannot monitor its borders cannot stem the flow of illegal workers, criminals, and terrorists. There is merit to both of these arguments but they miss the deeper point. Europe’s problems do not originate in money or migrants; they stem from the single market.
British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond was in Rome yesterday, 25 November, outlining his government’s strategy for reforging the relationship between Great Britain and Europe. The event was hosted by the British embassy in cooperation with the Istituto Affari Internazionali (IAI).
When Mario Draghi was asked on Thursday (16 July) whether the recent crisis surrounding Greece had made the monetary union more vulnerable, he gave an astonishingly frank response. Draghi denied that the discussion about Greece made the union more vulnerable; nevertheless, he admitted that:
this union is imperfect. And being imperfect, is fragile, is vulnerable, and doesn’t deliver all the benefits that it could if it were to be completed. So the future now should see decisive steps on further integration.
The Greek referendum is postmodern and I don’t mean that in a good way. The question is an ‘empty signifier’. No one can understand its literal meaning and that literal meaning is no longer relevant in any case. So you can think of referendum as a big symbol that you can fill with whatever you want; hopes, aspirations, worries, and disappointments all fit in nicely. Moreover, there is no reason any one person has to interpret the question in the same way as anyone else. On the contrary, politicians will try anything to find a hook that will pull you to their side of the issue. No wonder Greek society is evenly (if deeply) divided. Is the glass half full or half empty? Is it really a ‘glass’? What is ‘it’? Even the response assignments are counter-intuitive. According to the government, you vote ‘no’ to have a brighter future; according to the opposition, you vote ‘yes’ if you fear the unknown. What’s more the process itself is controversial. Greece’s detractors decry this whole exercise as a cynical manipulation; for Greece’s supporters, it is a celebration of democracy.
A big unknown in the UK referendum debate is the impact this will have on the City of London as the financial capital for Europe. There are three reasons that impact could be negative. The UK referendum debate and European reform negotiations are going to lessen British influence in the design of Europe’s capital union; they are going to eliminate any incentive for Britain to sign up to Europe’s banking union; and they raise the spectre that the UK government will find itself outside of future decisions about the shape of European financial regulation (and perhaps even without the support of the European Court of Justice inside the internal market).