Who is the real snob?

Reflec­tions on Ger­man com­men­tary about the planned EU ref­er­en­dum in the UK

by Jan Eich­horn.

We often demand that politi­cians lis­ten to the view of the elec­torate more exten­sive­ly – to adjust their posi­tions and poli­cies as a sign of respon­sive­ness between elec­tions. Some­times, it seems, we should be more care­ful in con­sid­er­ing what we wish for.

Recent­ly David Cameron, Prime Min­is­ter of the Unit­ed King­dom, announced in a long-await­ed speech that the cit­i­zens of the UK will have the chance to decide in a ref­er­en­dum whether or not their coun­try shall remain part of the Euro­pean Union in 2017. A lot of spec­u­la­tion and analy­sis has been offered about this announce­ment and sure­ly the issue is com­plex with a vari­ety of moti­va­tions at play. Cameron had to respond to a vocal group of vehe­ment EU-scep­tics in his own par­ty and has said that he hopes a ref­er­en­dum will help to set­tle some of the con­tin­u­ous fun­da­men­tal debates going on the coun­try. He pro­pos­es the ref­er­en­dum to take place after a set of deep reforms of the EU that would see cer­tain pow­ers to be rein­stat­ed with the mem­ber states.

To a Ger­man resid­ing in the UK (like myself) or gen­er­al­ly inter­est­ed in British pol­i­tics the sto­ry may appear to fit pre­sumed pat­terns: The Brits once again want their own way and think that they can cher­ry-pick. The British gov­ern­ment does not real­ly under­stand the con­ti­nent and does not real­ly care as their inter­ests are mere­ly eco­nom­i­cal. A lot of Ger­mans may also be quite scep­ti­cal of UK con­ser­v­a­tive prime min­is­ters in gen­er­al as well – prob­a­bly not able to escape some flash­ing images of Mar­garet Thatch­er briefly appear­ing on the inner eye. We may also be upset about the UK’s posi­tion to not join “our” for­mi­da­ble plans of reform­ing banks – again being the ones who just block every­thing in the Euro­pean Union that we think (or should I say “know”) is the only appro­pri­ate path forward.

Even if some of these images appear to hold some truth upon clos­er inspec­tion (while oth­ers would reveal a much greater deal of com­plex­i­ty and cer­tain ele­ment of Ger­man nar­cis­sis­tic self-right­eous­ness) the tone is clear – and most­ly shared across Ger­man news media. While we may agree that the EU needs some reforms, the UK gov­ern­ment keeps block­ing real ones. What they want is just ben­e­fits for the UK, not an actu­al­ly func­tion­ing Euro­pean Union. And we some­times quick­ly add how that is not sur­pris­ing con­sid­er­ing the curi­ous amuse­ment we have indulge in when we think about British pol­i­tics, with a House of Lords filled with aris­to­crats (which is only par­tial­ly true nowa­days) and politi­cians that fol­low strange debat­ing styles they must have learnt at their elite universities.

While there may be many valid and impor­tant points of dis­agree­ment on UK poli­cies towards the Euro­pean Union from the point of view of a con­ti­nen­tal coun­try like Ger­many, there is one mis­take we should not make: Let­ting our intu­itive images of British pol­i­tics sug­gest that we are only deal­ing with the posi­tions of a small Cam­bridge and Oxford elite polit­i­cal class. To the con­trary, many polls in the UK have demon­strat­ed exhaus­tive­ly how crit­i­cal its cit­i­zens are about the Euro­pean Union and how many would pre­fer to exit it (often a major­i­ty or at least a very sub­stan­tial minor­i­ty). It is a find­ing that is not only applic­a­ble to some regions or class­es – we find strong EU-scep­tics across the socio-eco­nom­ic spec­trum (with some vari­a­tion of course) and in all parts of the UK.

Of course it would be sim­plis­tic to argue that elite dis­cours­es do not influ­ence pub­lic views. But if we want to under­stand the British posi­tion in EU-lev­el nego­ti­a­tions focus­ing com­men­tary on the his­to­ry of British lead­ers’ strate­gies and super­fi­cial obser­va­tions on British pol­i­tics, we will not get very far. Politi­cians who want to be (re-)elected need to con­vince publics. Even when issues and moti­va­tions are more com­plex, as in this case for David Cameron, it is hard to deny that offer­ing the pub­lic an “in-or-out” ref­er­en­dum does con­sti­tute a response to views and voic­es of (at least large parts of) the public.

Regard­less of whether we agree or dis­agree with the approach and posi­tions of the UK gov­ern­ment, this move will be wel­comed by those cit­i­zens who want to take a deci­sion on the UK’s posi­tion towards the EU. In a lead-up to an elec­tion in 2015 which may be dif­fi­cult for the cur­rent gov­ern­ment con­sid­er­ing exten­sive pub­lic spend­ing cuts and repeat­ed spells of small or neg­a­tive eco­nom­ic growth, it could be an issue to win votes.

This leads to a final obser­va­tion: 2017 is in four years – a very long time in pol­i­tics. As many com­men­ta­tors in Britain have stat­ed whether the ref­er­en­dum will actu­al­ly take place is by no means assured. If the con­ser­v­a­tives do not win an out­right major­i­ty in par­lia­ment its occur­rence could be high­ly ques­tion­able. Many oth­er fac­tors will play into the process as well, par­tial­ly to what extent David Cameron will suc­ceed in affect­ing the nego­ti­a­tions about the EU’s future in the com­ing years. In the end, there may be more com­mon­al­i­ty – with regards to struc­tures and process­es – between the UK and Ger­many. It is hard to be as judg­ing about the UK gov­ern­ment when tak­ing the per­spec­tive that it main­ly acts out of inter­ests of using EU stances to respond to the pub­lic to gain pop­u­lar­i­ty in the lead up to elec­tions, gloss­ing over domes­tic dis­sat­is­fac­tion. Ger­mans may be remind­ed of the approach of a cer­tain chan­cel­lor of theirs – and how fre­quent­ly the promis­es made about the country’s strong stance against cer­tain EU poli­cies was some­what “soft­ened” — after rel­e­vant elections.

Dr Jan Eich­horn is a part­ner at d|part.


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

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