Just rocking the boat?

by Jakob Hensing.

A cou­ple of days ago on this blog, Jan Eich­horn com­ment­ed on Ger­man per­cep­tions of David Cameron’s announce­ment of a ref­er­en­dum on British EU mem­ber­ship to be held in 2017. Sim­pli­fy­ing a bit, the essence of his argu­ment was that this announce­ment ought to be seen as a response to domes­tic pres­sures, and as an attempt to strength­en the Tories’ posi­tion on an issue that gen­uine­ly res­onates with the British pub­lic – betray­ing a ratio­nale often pur­sued by politi­cians, includ­ing Ger­man ones. Jan also not­ed that there are still sev­er­al years left until the ref­er­en­dum, and that its real­i­sa­tion remains con­tin­gent on the out­come of the 2015 elec­tions. While I agree with most of the points that Jan has made in his arti­cle, as anoth­er Ger­man cur­rent­ly liv­ing in the UK (and spend­ing his days think­ing about inter­na­tion­al pol­i­tics), I am tempt­ed to offer a dif­fer­ent, less domes­ti­cal­ly focused, take on the issue.

Mr Cameron’s cur­rent posi­tion is hard­ly envi­able in many respects, as he faces an array of urgent pol­i­cy chal­lenges, dif­fi­cul­ties in main­tain­ing a coali­tion gov­ern­ment in a polit­i­cal sys­tem accus­tomed to sin­gle par­ty majori­ties, emerg­ing chal­lengers from the right, and con­sis­tent­ly vocal detrac­tors from with­in his own par­ty. Coun­ter­in­tu­itive­ly though, some of these woes may indeed strength­en, rather than weak­en, his hand in nego­ti­a­tions in the EU. Build­ing on sem­i­nal work by game the­o­rist Thomas Schelling, this idea has most suc­cinct­ly been out­lined by Robert Put­nam as the “log­ic of two-lev­el games”.

In inter­na­tion­al nego­ti­a­tions, it is advan­ta­geous for an actor to be able to cred­i­bly invoke domes­tic con­straints that make it impos­si­ble to strong­ly devi­ate from his or her pre­ferred bar­gain­ing out­come. In the con­text of the EU, oth­er mem­ber states may feel com­pelled to make more con­ces­sions to the UK than they oth­er­wise would, know­ing that in 2017 a ref­er­en­dum is loom­ing in which an EU-scep­ti­cal elec­torate will have the ulti­mate say on British mem­ber­ship. Mr Cameron’s pub­lic announce­ment of the ref­er­en­dum has clear­ly giv­en a boost to the cred­i­bil­i­ty of this threat – bor­row­ing from Schelling, Cameron has shown that he is gen­uine­ly will­ing to “rock the boat” of British EU membership.

While it is hard to quan­ti­fy the rel­a­tive impor­tance of this point as opposed to the domes­tic objec­tives that Jan has point­ed out, it strikes me as rather implau­si­ble that this log­ic didn’t play any role for the British gov­ern­ment. How­ev­er, the approach is clear­ly not with­out risks: if the bar­gain­ing part­ners do not per­ceive the domes­tic con­straint to be cred­i­ble or are sim­ply too fed up with anoth­er British attempt to extract con­ces­sions, there may well be a ref­er­en­dum in 2017 on mem­ber­ship in an EU that does not con­form to broad British pref­er­ences. And while some hard­lin­ers may actu­al­ly want the coun­try to leave the EU, that is far from clear for more mod­er­ate fig­ures like Mr Cameron.

Indeed, one aspect of the British debate that I find increas­ing­ly dis­con­cert­ing con­sists in the disin­gen­u­ous alter­na­tive sce­nar­ios to EU mem­ber­ship that are often being dis­cussed. In essence, many EU crit­ics would like to main­tain full free trade with the EU while not being a mem­ber, an arrange­ment that The Econ­o­mist has apt­ly described as the “equiv­a­lent of eat­ing in a restau­rant but not pay­ing the cov­er charge”. Sim­i­lar aspi­ra­tions inform the notion that the UK may remain a non-EU mem­ber of the Euro­pean Eco­nom­ic Area (EEA) like Nor­way, or attain an arrange­ment sim­i­lar to the one of Switzer­land. Although even some Ger­man jour­nal­ists some­how seem to believe that this may actu­al­ly hap­pen, it is hard to see why oth­er mem­ber states would agree to such a deal.
So in sum, my assump­tion is that most British politi­cians (Tories includ­ed) would actu­al­ly only want a ref­er­en­dum if the brinkman­ship bar­gain­ing tac­tic is suc­cess­ful. This is not only some­what reck­less but also nor­ma­tive­ly problematic.

A ref­er­en­dum is an excep­tion­al occur­rence in most rep­re­sen­ta­tive democ­ra­cies, offer­ing a way to reach an author­i­ta­tive and wide­ly legit­i­mate deci­sion on an issue of such fun­da­men­tal impor­tance as EU mem­ber­ship. But such legit­i­ma­cy requires the com­mit­ment to the ref­er­en­dum to be a gen­uine and sin­cere one. As Jan has cor­rect­ly point­ed out, it remains to be seen whether the ref­er­en­dum will actu­al­ly take place in 2017 – for the moment, the pos­si­bil­i­ty that the announce­ment large­ly served ulte­ri­or motives, be they domes­tic or inter­na­tion­al, leaves me won­der­ing whether the day of Mr. Cameron’s speech was nec­es­sar­i­ly a good one for direct democ­ra­cy in Europe.

Jakob Hens­ing is an affil­i­ate at d|part.


The views and opin­ions expressed in this arti­cle are those of the author.

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