Across the Channel: Race to the Right

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“Not again”. That must have been the thought crossing the minds of many a Labour Party operative shortly after the publication of the ominous exit poll spelling the Opposition’s defeat in the 2015 UK general election at 22:00 on 7 May. Until that second, the narrative had been one of the governing Conservative Party having been cornered by the largely unimpressive, yet apparently sufficiently error-free performance of the Leader of the Opposition, Ed Miliband. Due to the persistent unpopularity of the economic austerity prescribed by Prime Minister David Cameron’s government and the increase in strength of parties all rejecting the Conservatives’ continuation in office, most commentators saw it as a done deal that the Tories would lose the election. Conversely, Labour would manage to narrowly edge ahead as the senior partner in a rag-tag, rainbow coalition made up of itself, the Liberal Democrats and Greens, with outside support from the strong Scottish National Party contingent and the Welsh nationalists of Plaid Cymru. Wrong.

The morning after, the Conservatives had won a majority in the House of Commons, whilst Labour ended up almost 100 seats behind the Tories. Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats were decimated from an erstwhile 57 seats to a mere 8 MPs. In Scotland, the separatist SNP swept most of the region’s seats – whilst the severely Eurosceptic UK Independence Party led by star media performer Nigel Farage scored one measly seat out of 650 constituencies.The short era of coalition politics in the United Kingdom is over – normal service has resumed on 8 May 2015.  So that’s the end of it, right?

Wrong again. This was merely the warmup for the real thing: the 2016 referendum on the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union. Yes, whilst David Cameron has been saying that he wants the referendum to occur sometime before “the end of 2017”, there are some compelling reasons to stage it in 2016:

  • In 2017, the EU’s two most influential countries will see their own national elections. France will elect its President and Parliament in the spring, whilst Germans will be asked to cast their ballots for their Members of Parliament and (in effect) their Chancellor. Whilst on current opinion polls and political trends, another Christian Democratic victory under Chancellor Angela Merkel seems to be a done deal in Germany, France is a different matter altogether: no one seriously expects the National Front’s leader, Marine Le Pen, to emerge victorious from the second round of the presidential election. However, it is safe to say that she will do better than her father who has proven successively maladroit in his handling of the media (and that’s putting it politely). President Hollande is likely to either not even run for re-election or will be convincingly beaten by Le Pen and the standard bearer of the centre-right, Nicolas Sarkozy (though this prediction always comes with the caveat of Mr Sarkozy not being involved in yet another corruption scandal). In short, neither Germany, nor France will have time for long-winded negotiations with the United Kingdom in the midst of election-year posturing.
  • Through his victory, Mr Cameron has been able to quiet a substantive number of backbenchers in his party. Estimated at about 100 MPs, they are fiercely Eurosceptic and are unlikely to accept one of those quintessential Brussels compromises when it comes to issues like immigration, benefits for EU migrants and the free movement of citizens. By 2017, two years after his convincing general election win, Mr Cameron will be on the way out (he has already made it clear that he’s not too keen on a third term). As governments generally go, mid-term blues set in – leading to the incumbent government being unpopular across wide swaths of the public. In such a situation, unrestrained by the threat of Mr Cameron staying in power, Eurosceptic backbenchers in the Conservative Party may find it rather easy to rebel against the party line – especially if it recommends a “Yes” to the negotiated compromise with Brussels. Suddenly, the Conservatives would find themselves split right down the middle – just like in the 1990s, the issue of Europe would accelerate the leader’s downfall from power. The Prime Minister will be keen to avoid the problems that come with this state of affairs by wrongfooting his backbenchers.
  • The Conservatives also face pressure from major corporations to end the uncertainty, one way or the other, around the UK’s membership in the EU. Companies will be keeping their financial powder dry until the British electorate has made a decision.
  • Whilst UKIP has only won one seat, it has come second in around 120 constituencies – primarily in Labour’s heartland in northern England. Unless Cameron wants UKIP to take ownership of the EU membership issue, he has to press forward decisively with the referendum. It is in this light that recent statements from two leadership contenders in the Labour Party have to be seen as well – both Andy Burnham (the bookmakers’ favourite) and Liz Kendall (the leading candidate from the party’s right) favour a referendum on the EU – something that Mr Miliband was keen to reject during his failed quest for 10 Downing Street. Mr Burnham even went so far as to call for a referendum in 2016 and signposting demands Labour would make under his leadership, particularly concessions on hot-button issues like welfare payments to new EU migrants and wage dumping. These are somewhat new sounds from Labour – though, controversially, the party featured “controls on migration” as one of its central pledges in the general election campaign.

A number of factors are likely to complicate Mr Cameron’s bid to extract concessions from his fellow heads of government (and contrary to some of the discussions seen in the vocal British media, they will be the principal addressees – not Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker or the President of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz):

  • Treaty changes are notoriously complicated in the European Union – and given recent jurisprudence coming from the European Court of Justice, any ban on EU migrants having access to benefits are likely to necessitate a Treaty change – lest they be struck down by the Luxembourg court. Interestingly, the ECJ has already pronounced its willingness to let Member States restrict access to welfare for “economically inactive” migrants (i.e. those who don’t seek work). Clearly, the renewed debate will be about those genuinely seeking work in the United Kingdom.
  • Then, there’s the issue of speed: first, 28 Member States have to negotiate Treaty changes – some Member States, including the EU’s most recent entrants from Eastern Europe, have made it amply clear that they will not accept anything that could be construed as restricting their citizens’ access to the social security nets of other Member States. Reconciling widely disparate positions would be tough at best, impossible at worst – especially as Treaty changes require the approval of all Member States. Either way, it would quite simply take too long to negotiate the Treaty change.
  • The United Kingdom getting its way on benefits and migration could trigger a whole plethora of demands for Treaty changes by other Member States. Just six years after the Lisbon Treaty, calls may well arise to institutionalize the ESM, strengthen the social aspect the EU or, conversely, strengthen the market liberalism. If you think the UK negotiations on their own could be chaotic, just wait until every Member State submits its own wishlist at the negotiating table. And that doesn’t even start to cover legitimate questions about the Union’s democratic legitimacy, popular consent for “ever-closer Union” and the ultimate purpose of the Union.

What it may ultimately come down to is Mr Cameron extracting concessions from the other Member States, but not in form of a Treaty change (which would be unlikely to be approved prior to the 2016 referendum anyway) – but an intergovernmental agreement, similar to the Treaty establishing the European Stability Mechanism. The Prime Minister could then rightly argue to have won a substantive victory, especially given how the ESM has become part of the EU’s institutional arrangements.

In fact, it can be argued that much of the Union’s problems in recent years have stemmed from having avoided a clear-cut debate on what it wants to be. Does it wish to be an EFTA-style trading bloc? Or maybe a confederation with extended powers in key areas like competition law, trade and scientific exchange? Or a federation along the lines of Canada, Australia and the United States? Rather than dismissing British concerns about the course of the Union, maybe the debate about the possible exit of one of the most successful economies within the bloc could be an appropriate opportunity to reflect on a better way of getting things done. And maybe, just maybe, Mr Cameron’s pledge to hold that in/out referendum (provided the “In” side wins, that is) could result in Britain taking a much more active role in European affairs. It would certainly not be unwelcome.

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