The British Empire was acquired in a fit of absent-mindedness, historians say. One day, much the same might be said of Britain’s continued membership in the European Union (EU). The issues raised by the EU referendum that will take place on June 23 are of grave and profound consequence, but the circumstances which gave rise to it were not. There were no looming forks in the road, no new treaties to ram through parliament. Rather, the referendum is the product of a specific set of circumstances.
In 2007, two years into his leadership of the Conservative party, David Cameron gave a “cast-iron guarantee” that he would hold a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty. By the time he’d become prime minister, it was infeasible to deliver on that promise, as by then Lisbon was a fait accompli. The error was not the reneging, but the making of the pledge. At the beginning of 2013, while under continued pressure from Euroskeptics within his party and the rise of the United Kingdom Independence Party outside it, the prime minister conceded a referendum on Britain’s EU membership. If his party had trusted him more on the issue, he would have been better placed to withstand the pressure to hold a referendum asking a question that need not have been posed at this time.
There are downsides to Britain breaking from the current set of economic arrangements. As Vaclav Klaus, former president of the Czech Republic, has observed, the EU is Janus-faced — it brings economic benefits alongside its supra-national administrative governance. Potential upsides depend on the British government’s appetite for taking advantage of being freed from the constraints of EU membership. Such freedom has little value with Mr. Cameron’s brand of steady-as-you-go politics — zeal is not a word easily associated with him. Other than the cap on net migration, there is little from the EU that constrains his policy ambitions for Britain. By contrast, it is no accident that Justice Secretary Michael Gove, one of the few high-energy reformers in the Cabinet, has broken with the prime minister to support the campaign for leaving the EU.
Neither does membership in the EU preclude fiscal retrenchment. Ireland, which had a much larger deficit at the depths of the financial crisis, now has lower government borrowing than Britain. Across a large number of areas, such as the national minimum wage (which is being sharply increased), bank regulation, decarbonizing the energy sector, wage reporting by gender, and corporate-board composition, Britain is converging with and sometimes overtaking its European partners when it comes to increasing regulation.
While focus on economic issues appears to be to Mr. Cameron’s electoral advantage, it overlooks 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 last weekend calls “further political integration into the European Union” — accommodate a large nation that is on a diverging path? In particular, how can the powers and remits of common institutions (notably the European Court of Justice and the European Parliament, which gained crucial powers under the Lisbon Treaty) be recalibrated and diluted with respect to their writ over a semi-detached part of the Union?
After the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, Mr. Cameron faced an analogous constitutional conundrum in making good his promise to turn Scotland into a self-governing part of the United Kingdom. Because Scottish MPs at Westminster could vote on matters that don’t extend north of the border, parliament passed a law reducing their role on English legislation. However, the agreement on which Mr. Cameron is fighting the referendum does not address this, let alone solve it. It is more in the nature of a statement of intent. The Brussels agreement recognizes different paths of integration for different member states, in its words, “allowing those that want to deepen integration to move ahead, whilst respecting the rights of those which do not want to take such a course.”
#share#This is nothing new. New treaties governing the EU always require the assent of every member state. What is new is the bargain Mr. Cameron struck in Brussels. In return for assurances that the treaty veto rights that member states already have will be respected, countries such as Britain not participating in deeper integration “will not create obstacles to but [will] facilitate such further deepening.” It’s hard to imagine any of Mr. Cameron’s Conservative predecessors making such a unilateral concession as, boxed in by the countdown to the June referendum, was forced out of the prime minister. Indeed, in 2011, Mr. Cameron became the only British prime minister to veto a European treaty, an action that would not be allowed under the new Brussels agreement should Mr. Cameron win the referendum, but would continue to be if the referendum is lost.
As yet, no one has any idea what the next treaty might look like or how successfully it would address the institutional asymmetry created by Britain. The U.K. is different. It is one of the two member states which has an opt-out from the euro (Denmark is the other) — other countries not using the euro are legally obliged to join the euro area – and it is not a member of the 26-country border-free Schengen Area, which had eliminated internal border controls — until the Paris terrorist atrocities and the migrant crisis led several of them to rapidly reintroduce border checks.
Instead, the British government presented a list of second-order issues, some of which it could have solved themselves. Chief among them was payment of in-work and child benefits to EU migrants. Insofar as benefits are a major factor in attracting the high levels of immigration of recent years, Britain could have reformed its welfare system and reduced its cost. Members states, as the Brussels agreement points out, have the right to define the fundamental principles of their social-security systems. Nonetheless, the package Mr. Cameron brought back enabled him to trap Euroskeptics in a manufactured choice while the real one is still over the horizon.
Mr. Cameron argues that the eleven and a half pages of double-spaced core text he brought back from Brussels give Britain the best of both worlds. In some ways the agreement might, but it could equally be argued that it is the worst of both, formalizing Britain’s semi-detached “special status” without the institutional carve-outs needed to give it effect. Apart from the leverage given up with the loss of the British veto on further integration, the deal is not cost-free. The negotiations have consumed diplomatic capital when the EU faces real challenges in the form of a stagnating economy (thank the euro for that) and a migrant crisis (thank you, Mrs. Merkel).
In the past, Britain’s negotiations with its European partners have often been characterized as a zero-sum game. “Game, set, and match” declared John Major after the Maastricht treaty negotiations in 1991. European friends of Britain and British friends of Europe should recognize that it is in the interests of both to find a durable solution to the adamantine reality of Britain’s reluctant membership. Former European Commission president Jacques Delors has spoken of Britain’s reluctance to embrace political unification. “If the British cannot support the trend towards more integration in Europe, we can nevertheless remain friends, but on a different basis. I could imagine a form such as a European economic area or a free-trade agreement,” Mr. Delors told a German newspaper in December 2012.
In the referendum battle in the weeks and months ahead, the name of Mr. Cameron’s greatest predecessor will be pressed into service. Just two days after the firing of the starter pistol, London mayor Boris Johnson was compared unfavorably to Winston Churchill. Usually, speculation about what Churchill might have made of the EU focuses on Churchill’s views on Britain’s role in the united Europe that he championed. A deeper well to draw from is Churchill’s political philosophy, derived from his views on the unchanging character of human nature and therefore timeless in its application.
For Churchill, in the words of Larry Arnn, America’s leading Churchill scholar, “authority comes from the people, and those in government who understand where authority comes from exercise it best. Politics depends ultimately upon knowledge not of means but of ends, and those who exercise authority in government must contemplate ends.” He believed that only elected politicians — not experts or government bureaucrats — are properly capable of doing so because of their accountability to the people through the ballot box. To Churchill, the House of Commons was the beating heart of Britain’s constitution. It is not hard to see how deepening political integration into the EU drains the lifeblood of Britain’s constitutional arrangements.
Churchill believed Britain’s constitution strengthened its position in the world. He was among the first to see how technology had vastly magnified the costs of war to the point of threatening mankind’s existence. Yet he would have rejected the position of the pocket Bismarcks of today’s comment pages who believe a dangerous world necessitates a trade-off between power and democratic accountability. Democracies, Churchill thought, are more resilient and better equipped to deal with the “mass effects” of war and peace — a position fully vindicated by the history of the last century.
Viewed in this light, 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 to remain in the EU settles the matter of Britain’s relationship with Europe. Even with a probable vote to stay in the EU in four months’ time, the tensions inherent in Britain’s membership will remain. It’s likely, then, that Mr. Cameron’s referendum will not be the end of the story. It will mark the start of a new chapter that will be left to his successor to resolve, whoever that might be.
— Rupert Darwall is the author of The Age of Global Warming: A History.