Monday, January 20, 2014

Questions about the EU-UK relationship.

In response to my piece with John Bruton on the LSE British Politics Blog, two friends asked questions on Facebook about how the UK’s debate connects/compares with those taking place elsewhere in the EU. I don’t want to post their questions here without their permission, and their questions are far more complex than I've just summarized them. I felt I should post my lengthy - and somewhat rambling - reply here rather than post it as a ridiculously long reply on Facebook.

You're absolutely right: Britain's relationship with the EU is not the only one that is subject to domestic demands and strong debates. Throughout the EU there are demands for change, which as you note, are currently fragmented and incoherent. Nor is it just the UK where those demands have been growing stronger, although again, this has not necessarily resulted - yet - in any clarity. And the tension between the UK and the EU, and the perception this is all about the UK being awkward, is nothing new. I often think back to the title of a book by Stephen George which coined a phrase you hear all the time about the UK-EU relationship: "An Awkward Partner: Britain in the European Community." Note the indefinite article in the title. Britain is AN awkward partner, not THE awkward partner as you'll often hear it said. Every member state of the EU can be a pain in the arse at some point, e.g. the UK hasn't brought the Euro to the edge of collapse, has never rejected an EU treaty, has a good rate of enforcing EU law etc etc. But there are limits to how far this can be pushed, this George's books, and this is perhaps the problem for current UK-EU relations.

There is a feeling among other governments that the UK’s behaviour reflects naked national self-interest with only casual regard to the wider European interest. This isn't helped by the perception it’s not even about the UK’s national interest and more about the Conservative Party and UKIP. HMG has become aware of this and has changed its approach from demanding unilateral changes to the EU for the UK’s benefit, to pushing more the idea of EU-wide reform that’s good for the whole EU. That helps (see below), but the perception remains this is just about the UK and that the UK is giving little thought to where this could take the rest of the EU.

The UK has scored some notable results with the budget and some other areas. But it remains very difficult for the rest of the EU to feel they can engage with UK efforts to reform the EU without falling into the trap of helping the UK/Tory party more than the EU on a wider basis. Take HMG’s current ‘Review into the Balance of Competences’, i.e. an incredibly detailed review of what the EU does in the UK, and whether the balance between the EU and member states (with the UK as the focus) is right (conclusion so far is that the balance is right. It’s provoked cries of a whitewash by Tory Eurosceptics who now argue the review should focus less on the evidence collected and more on what the British people feel!) It’s an incredible exercise from an academic perspective. Rarely do you see a state sit down and assess the impact of the international on it. The reports are being published in tranches and will eventually inform any UK attempt at a renegotiation. But the rest of the EU has spurned involvement in it, seeing it as just a UK power-grab rather than a genuine attempt to analyse the EU and thus prepare the ground for wider EU change. The same might be said for the large number of ideas, events, publications etc. coming out of the UK on how to reform the EU, and there are a large number of them. I’m pretty sure the competences review will be closely read all over the EU, but few will want to admit to it. Here the UK is running the risk of ‘right message, wrong messenger.’

And it’s not as if the rest of the EU don’t have their own ideas. Others in the EU feel they have been very busy not just proposing changes but making big changes. The Greeks are hardly likely to think it’s novel to hear demands for the EU to change or hear ideas about how this should happen and what their role should be. The Germans are constantly pushing EU reform, especially to make sure the huge investments – both financial and political – they've made in the EU work out. While not wanting to play down Germany’s power in the EU, I think it would pay for the UK to think about how even Germany – with its huge investments in the EU and the EU’s dependence on it - finds it difficult to get changes to the EU. The Dutch launched their own review similar to the UK’s, but were keen to make clear the differences. And yes, they do have growing levels of Euroscepticism. The next European Parliament elections will make that very clear. What’s different with other EU members is that they’re agendas are not quite so dominated (at least not yet) by a ‘give us what we want, or we leave’ message.

And this brings us to whether the EU should worry about the UK leaving/pushing open reform which then spreads/converges with other demands across the EU. Yes, this is a concern but it’s not just about the UK and it’s a fear that remains vague. First, unsurprisingly the rest of the EU is paying far more attention to ideas/public frustrations about how to reform the Eurozone than it is to ideas that appear to originate in how to change the UK-EU relationship. It is change to the EU to deal with the Eurozone that is therefore the big can of worms that is yet to be opened fully. That fits into the UK agenda, more of which below. The concern with the UK – and I've been arguing for a while that the rest of the EU does need to take more notice of this – is that wider changes to the EU could be triggered by the UK whichever way it goes. Here we need to dust down the good old domino theory. Domino theory 1: UK pushes and opens a renegotiation of UK-EU relations and therefore opens the possibility of wider changes to EU (potentially very damaging to the union’s coherence), many of which would be driven by other states also wanting to ‘pick and mix’ their membership requirements. Domino theory 2: UK fails to open renegotiations and leaves, triggering changes to the internal balance of power in the EU and changes to the direction and nature of the EU, possibly pushing others to leave.

The key here is whether, as you ask, the sentiments of the British and other Europeans could converge. If so then domino theory 1 becomes a bigger concern (if, that is, there was no agreement on what was being converged, just that the timing of those demands converged). In a way this is exactly what the PM is hoping for. He’s banking on some form of treaty change/big changes between 2015-2017 (and thus after the next UK general election, therefore plausibly pushing the issue off the agenda until then, at least that’s the PM’s hope!), treaty changes based on the need to change the EU to adapt to the Eurozone crisis. So Britain – or more specifically Cameron - is himself relying on others in the EU to help trigger change the UK can then secure a deal through. This in itself angers other governments: why should Germany, Denmark, France etc be made to change the EU in line with a UK electoral timetable? Others also have election timetables too, and while that doesn't make convergence impossible, it might not happen when Cameron wants it.

That aside, we’re now into the territory of how to do this. A big new treaty? Wow. Very few – at least right now - want to have to go down that route again even though it could be the only way to set in stone the changes made to the Eurozone. But it could mean Lisbon all over again. And Lisbon began long ago with the 2001-2003 work of the European Convention, a large gathering of opinions on how to reform the EU that led to the European Constitution, which when rejected was changed slightly and passed (with incredible difficulty) as the Lisbon Treaty. So the treaty option is currently not appealing. Changes could be made without a treaty change, but that could happen now and neither Cameron or the rest of the EU are ready for that. In a twist the UK is the country that now pushes the treaty change option hardest, despite in the past being the state that instead preferred pragmatic non-treaty changes. And it’s the rest of the EU that is now minded to push for pragmatic changes as opposed to whole new treaties. So how then do we reconcile it all? That’s the million dollar question. My concern is that the UK generally seems oblivious to the situation the rest of the EU is also in and how the UK has to fit into it if it is to have any success at all. For me, I’m also worried the rest of the EU is being too dismissive/overlooking the UK. Miliband’s warning the UK is in danger of sleepwalking out of the EU also works with the EU: it’s in danger of being asleep as the UK sleepwalks out the door. I don’t want to overplay Britain’s position, but what a UK exit might mean for the EU (or for EU-US, EU-NATO, EU-Russia/Eastern Europe, EU-Turkey, Eurozone, German-French relations etc) is generally not openly talked about. In fact being made to think about such an unpalatable development is one reason that some in the rest of the EU are angry at the approach the UK is taking. They consider it blackmail.

Not sure if that helped! What I despair at when listening to the UK debate is how oblivious even those in quite senior positions in UK politics are at what the rest of the EU is doing/thinking. There is also a lazy assumption that it’s just about getting close to the Germans: a sort of hug them close approach. Germany and Merkel are key, but they’re not the only ones. Changing the EU is a huge task, and not one the UK can do easily or opt out of. Even if the UK leaves, the way the EU changes will be of direct concern to the UK. There’s no getting away from it (and the same can be said to a lesser extent for the EU: the UK won’t go away, it will be among the EU’s most important relationships and one that’s constantly pushing the EU to change in ways of interest to it.)

Finally, you're right about the Scots. I'm doing some work on this at the moment - and so excuse me while I get some of this off my chest - and I'm tired of hearing the false dichotomy of a pro-European Scottish white to a Eurosceptic English black. It overlooks so much. On the one hand it overlooks how, to pick one example, hopes for independence would be very badly damaged if Salmond said an independent Scotland should join the Euro. There's still some polling done on opinion on UK membership of the Euro. Support in Scotland for the UK (and ok, the question is about the UK and not necessarily whether it should happen to an independent Scotland) joining the Euro is around 11%. So it would be mad for the SNP to push that right now (although that might change in the longer-term, but certainly not in time for the referendum). On the other hand the dichotomy overlooks how levels of Euroscepticism vary across England, with a large number of polls showing Londoners holding higher levels of support for the EU than the Scots (e.g. in the aforementioned polling on the Euro, 14% of Londoners want the UK to join!) Generally the UK overall has a strong Eurosceptic tone. I think it says more of how dire the pro-European outlook can sometimes be in the UK that people point to Scotland for signs of pro-Europeanism. Once at an event in Germany I heard a respected British journalist answer a question about Scotland and the EU by quoting figures from a recent opinion poll that showed regional support for the suggestion the UK should leave the EU. The UK average, he pointed out, was around 50%. He then said “But in Scotland only 40% want the UK to quit the EU." A colleague later asked me, "What does he mean *only* 40%?" The situation on the EU in Scotland is more complex than I have space or time to discuss here, and for a variety of reasons the political elite/culture is more comfortable with putting across a more pro-European message than you'll find coming out of Westminster. But as you note, this is not just about 'Little Englanders.'

Anyway, I have skimmed over some very complex issues, I'm not sure if I've answered the questions entirely, and I know some people out there will certainly disagree with what I've said (this is about the EU, after all). Comments welcome.