In a new article posted elsewhere on this website, my old friend Rupert Darwall has, with characteristic elegance and precision, dissected some of the issues surrounding Britain’s referendum on its membership of the EU, a vote set for June 23. For anyone interested in what’s at stake (and I appreciate that not everyone on NR’s side of the Atlantic will be), it’s a must-read.
As Darwall explains, this particular chapter in Britain’s unhappy European union began in 2007, when then–opposition leader David Cameron gave a “cast-iron guarantee” of a referendum on the EU’s notorious Lisbon Treaty. That treaty, another of Angela Merkel’s gifts to the Continent, was a disgrace to democracy, designed to bludgeon through the functional equivalent of the EU’s rejected constitution. Unfortunately, it came into force before Cameron became prime minister. His referendum would have had no legal effect. Being a pragmatic sort, Cameron dropped it.
Cameron could have gotten away with that flip-flop but for a pattern of behavior, both before and after that decision, that gave the entirely fair impression that he neither shared nor even understood euroskeptic concerns. Thus he made clear his irritation with those Conservatives who were “banging on about Europe.” He denounced UKIP, at that time more clearly a tribe of the ex-Tory Right than it is today, as a party of “fruitcakes, loonies or closet racists, mostly,” a slur that backfired badly.
Compounding this — and whatever eurofundamentalists might claim to the contrary — Cameron was generally cooperative in his dealings with the EU, something all too typical of what Darwall accurately describes as the prime minister’s “steady-as-you-go” politics.
But his clubbable approach generated no gratitude in Brussels and fueled mounting suspicion among euroskeptics at home. Darwall writes that if Cameron’s “party had trusted him more on Europe, he would have been better placed to withstand the pressure for [the] referendum” that now lies just ahead. That’s true. It didn’t help him that the increasingly uneasy Tories also felt threatened by a UKIP insurgency that was itself boosted by Cameron’s inability or unwillingness to fight Britain’s corner in Europe. The result was that, in 2013, he had to concede an “in/out” referendum that, if the voters opt for Brexit, could bring his premiership to an end.
Ranging more generally, Darwall argues that “other than the cap on net migration, there is little from the EU that constrains [Cameron’s] policy ambitions for Britain.” There’s quite a bit to that, but it should come with the important qualification that this is true of Cameron’s ambitions. As Darwall notes, in many areas the prime minister’s ideas converge with those of Britain’s European partners. Once those ideas are enacted into law at the EU level, they are nearly impossible to repeal. A future Tory prime minister, more interested in the free market and, say, scientific realism (Cameron is a climate warrior), will find such faits accomplis very frustrating indeed. With the EU in an increasingly dirigiste mood, that poisonous legacy will only get worse.
But all this is, in a sense, a sideshow, ignoring, as Darwall puts it, “the nine-tenths of the iceberg below the surface”:
How can a Union on the path to becoming a full-fledged political union — what the agreement Mr. Cameron secured in Brussels at the weekend calls “further political integration into the European Union” — accommodate a large nation that is on a diverging path?
It cannot. The EU is what it is, and what it is is a machine grinding relentlessly in the direction of “ever closer union,” a phrase that is both aspirational and of profound legal and institutional consequence. Allowing exemptions from the EU’s forward march — such as those releasing Britain and Denmark from the obligation to sign up for the euro — grows more difficult by the year and needs, well, “cast-iron” legal protection of the type that Cameron has notably failed to secure in his current “renegotiation” with the rest of the EU.
#share#That’s why Cameron’s deal largely covers what Darwall rightly dubs “second-order issues.” The British prime minister desperately wanted his country to stay in the EU, but he had to give the euroskeptic hordes something. Because of the nature of the EU, “second-order” was all that could ever be on offer. The result, fears Darwall, is a distraction, a package that enables Cameron “to trap euroskeptics in a manufactured choice when the real one is still over the horizon.”
In a way, that’s too pessimistic. The deal Cameron has struck is so feeble that, at best, all it can do is give a hand to waverers wanting an excuse to vote to remain in the EU. That’s not nothing, but the deal will not be center stage other than as comic relief. Rather, the debate will probably slide out from underneath Cameron’s control and into more important territory. On the euroskeptic side it will be focused on Britain’s regaining control of more of its own destiny, not least where immigration is concerned.
For their part, those looking to persuade Brits to rally behind the status quo will also, I suspect, move rapidly away from Cameron’s sad surrender and concentrate instead on the underlying case for continued membership of the EU. There will be happy talk of travel, peace, and free trade, but the key message will be negative: Leaving the EU is, they will warn, a leap in the dark, risky at the best of times, utter madness now.
Aided by the fact that Brexiteers have so far failed to unify around an easily grasped, unfrightening alternative to membership in the EU (such as the variant of the “Norwegian option” long advocated by EU Referendum’s Richard North), fear will prevail. Brits will stick with the EU, the devil they know.
Brits will stick with the EU, the devil they know.
That will be a tragedy, and that is the trap this referendum really represents. Darwall eloquently highlights the danger that the EU represents to British democracy. And he frets that “Mr. Cameron’s small-bore approach — asking for little and getting less — stores up problems for the future by fostering the impression that a vote in June to remain in the EU settles the matter of Britain’s relationship with Europe.” My worry, by contrast, is that that impression is correct: The vote will settle the question.
Darwall reckons that the “tensions inherent in Britain’s EU membership will remain” even after the vote to stay in that he expects. So they will. Where we differ is over Darwall’s obvious belief that they will count for something. He thinks that “Mr. Cameron’s referendum will not be the end of the story.” But my guess is that, for all practical purposes, it will. Euroskeptics are an aging segment of the electorate. Absent some truly major convulsion shaking the EU into reopening its core treaty for discussion, this vote is their last good shot at Brexit. And they are likely to miss.