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Due to circumstances beyond my control, I found myself listening to the Today programme this morning, with Matteo Renzi being interviewed. Three points struck me about this. One was that I must try listening to the radio more often. More consequentially, the second was that Renzi seemed adamant about the need to disconnect the two levels of the EU system, as he blamed Cameron for using the EU issue to settle domestic splits within his party. The third, not unrelatedly, was it is precisely Renzi’s domestic precariousness that is going to be most important in whether he can play a role in any Brexit negotiations.
With all this mind, let’s play the Euro-dominos game. Think of it as domino theory, but with special European rules. These rules include the inclusion of non-European dominos and, most crucially, the view that each domino falls for separate reasons, rather than because the previous domino has fallen. In short, it’s domino—esque.
The first two dominos have already fallen in this. Poland has returned another government that is ill-equipped and –disposed to playing a constructive role in the EU: President Kaczynski appears even less flexible than last time around, a period that took some good time to recover from.
Then we have the UK, self-excluding through its referendum and now stuck in a loop of indecision about how and whether to proceed. No one seems to know what to do, or how to do it.
Which takes us to Italy. Renzi’s December constitutional referendum is, at best, finely balanced, and looks little better judged than Cameron’s referendum pledge. If Renzi’s reforms don’t pass, then he will have to step down, opening up the way to an unstable government and/or early elections where populist dangers abound.
By that point, we’ll also have had the American wildcard of the Presidential election. If Trump pulls that off then European expectations about the future will undergo some radical shifts, especially in regard to TTIP and to NATO. Of course, this will be subverted in the short-term by the ‘Brexit effect’, i.e. everything seems fine, because it hasn’t happened yet. Only with inauguration in the new year will any actual change become apparent, by which time the Euro-dominos can continue to teeter.
France is up next, with the May Presidential elections. Marine Le Pen already looks like a shoe-in for the second round, and a Trump non-disaster state-side might help reassure voters that a populist/far-right (take your pick) leader might not be such a bad thing. Of course, French Presidents have much more power than American ones, so Le Pen could effect major changes in policy, not least pressing for France’s exit from the EU (or, at least, a referendum thereon).
All of which takes us up to the biggest, less wobbly domino of all, Germany. If all these things happen, then Germany might find itself having to make major revisions to its foreign policy. With a departing UK and (possibly) France, a non-functional Poland and Italy, and a US that seems bent on building real and metaphorical walls, the position of Angela Merkel might become even less stable than it is now. Let’s chuck in the possibility of a Turkey that gives up on its refugee deal with the EU, and Merkel’s defeat in the autumn 2017 federal elections becomes less surprising still. Even if she and the CDU/CSU can persist in a new grand coalition – the alternatives (sic) being non-viable under d’Hondt – she might feel that now is the time to protect German interests more aggressively, pushing for Eurozone integration to a much higher degree or instead walking away from the EU in its present form.
Why do this?
It’s helpful somethings to sketch out these paths, because it forces us to consider how things are interconnected. Moreover, as the UK referendum showed, a failure to prepare for all circumstances can lead to you finding yourself with your pants around your ankles, and nobody wants that.
But most importantly, it gets us to reflect on whether this is viable and/or realistic. And that’s where Euro-dominos – favourite parlour game of Eurosceptics everywhere – falls down (so to speak).
In the lurid scenario I’ve outlined above, most of the issues and dynamics are internal to states, so the domino-ness of it all is limited: there are natural fire-breaks, in other words. One might argue that there is another underlying dynamic of populism and I’d concede that this does matter. However, it neglects the other missing component from the scenario above – the depth of integration.
The EU is a messy compromise. That’s why so many people have a problem with it. However, their problems are all different problems and as the British are discovering – a bit too late – while there are bad points, those are (more than) offset by good points. You pay a price, but you get something for that price.
As any of the Euro-dominos fall, those states will find they are in a pareto-optimal position already, with regard to the EU: i.e. they can’t improve their position in a way that is compatible with other members’ preferences. Again, this doesn’t mean it’s a great position, just that it’s roughly as good as it can be.
The only way that this pareto-optimum will shift radically is if there is a major systemic shock. Internally, that would need a synchronisation of the domestic crises discussed above; something that looks deeply unlikely, especially if we consider the Eurozone-crisis as a proxy for this. Instead, that shock would have to come from outside. A President Trump might be part of this, although there has to be a question mark over whether he would actually follow through on his more outré ideas. Much more viable is a threat from a destabilising Russia.
But that’s another game of Euro-dominos.
A few weeks ago, I wrote on the challenge facing the British eurosceptic movement: the achievement of victory in the referendum removes the key binding agent in the coalition of interests, with many now likely to redirect their activity elsewhere.
Since then, we’ve seen some marginal movements in affairs, including the election of Diane James to lead UKIP and the creation of various Tory ginger groups to push Article 50 along (preferably towards a ‘hard Brexit’ outcome). While none of these is determinative in themselves, they do point towards a new agenda for those eurosceptics who want to carry on the fight.
Until now, the narrative has been one of “if only we weren’t in the EU, then everything would be fine.” We’ll step over the weak/strong paradox – the UK is too feeble to stop the EU pushing it around, but so strong it could impose its will on the EU from the outside – and consider this from a more strategic viewpoint. While exit was not a viable option, this narrative provided both an emotional appeal to a brighter future and a conveniently untestable proposition. If the UK did well, then it was because it was exerting itself; if it did badly, then it was because dark and foreign forces were holding it back. Thus in its more refined version, “yes, things are alright now, but imagine how much better they’d be outside the EU.”
Of course, this was not just a eurosceptic discourse; it also seeped into the wider public and political debate. The scapegoating of the EU that all member states have engaged in over the years is a gentle reflection of this worldview and is a not-unreasonable approach to take. If there’s an opportunity to push blame onto someone else for something unpleasant or controversional, plus separate opportunities to claim credit for things that turn out well, then most people would take these, because in the short-run there’s no cost.
But as EU governments are finding now, there is a long-run cost with the hollowing of the system’s output legitimacy.
For eurosceptics in the UK, the problem is a slightly different one. In securing a Leave vote, they have brought the previously-untestable scenario very much closer to being, with all the attendant dangers that brings for them. Broadly speaking, these dangers fall into two categories. Firstly, the post-membership world might turn out to be obviously and unavoidably worse than its predecessor, while secondly, they might find that they are held responsible more directly for policy failings. In essence, leaving the EU opens up the narrative of “if only we’d stayed in the EU, things would be better.”
The events of the past weeks suggest two responses to this, linked to each other, but ultimately in conflict.
James’ election to UKIP leader suggests that the party is going to stick with the Faragist model, James being the closest to Farage of all the candidates and Farage ‘retiring’ to just his role as leader of the MEP group (i.e. still a substantial and powerful office). This model is adaptive and boradly constructed, pulling constituents from across the political spectrum on the back of general political disaffection.
However, James is not Farage, not least in her charismatic capacity (at least, not yet), so how much she can maintain the delicate balancing act – especially in the conditions outlined above – is questionable. Moreover, the changing political landscape suggests that the greatest opportunities lie in mopping up Labour voters, an option that looks set to be viable through to 2020 with Jeremy Corbyn’s very likely re-election this weekend.
So far, James has not made a big play in this direction, instead getting trapping in a “I admire Putin” trap, but her approach generally appears to be to continue using the EU as the focus of her strategy: something on the lines of “the EU continues to hold us back, despite the referendum.” This adaptation of the classic narrative works as a medium-term proposition, and especially while the government doesn’t push the Article 50 button: it suggests some collusion of Downing Street and ‘Brussels’ in denying the will of the British people, which fits nicely with the disaffection agenda.
The problem with this is that lots of people believe it, not least on the Tory backbenches. The creation of Leaves Means Leaves – Mrs May might get an honorary degree from Oxford for her services to linguistics one day – is precisely the manifestation of the UKIP logic. Because neither the EU nor Number 10 can be trusted, they have to be pushed hard, first to start Article 50 and second to create as much space as possible between the UK and the EU.
Again, this is a reasonable position if you don’t trust these bodies – why try to keep close to an organisation you find politically and economically bankrupt? But it does ultimately undermine the Jamesian adaptation of the eurosceptic narrative. By moving hard away from links with the EU, the mileage in blaming the latter for one’s woes becomes sharply reduced, not least because voters will ask why you don’t use the newly-created freedom of political action that you have just created.
To some extent, this is a transitional problem. The UK is very unlikely to collapse as a result of Brexit and eventually something that looks like a reasonable state of affairs will come about, at which point sceptics can say “see? we told you it would be alright on the outside”: if the EU continues to fail to address its troubles, then the relative performance might be that much starker. However, that still removes the very large part of eurosceptics’ raison d’etre. This isn’t World War II and there are very few eurosceptics who care about liberating the rest of the continent.
The irony here is that while eurosceptics might have achieved their headline goal, they will fail in most other respects. Euroscepticism has always been a very broad church and whatever post-membership deal the UK ends up with, it will disappoint and disillusion many within the movement: Brexit is a means, not an end in itself. As the coming years will show, all too clearly, just as there was no consensus about being inside, so too there will be no consensus about being outside. Whether that gives rise to a new community of pro-EU activists remains to be seen.
Now we’re back into the normal flow of things, I’ve been giving more talks about Brexit, and writing pieces for other sites. As I decried in my previous posts here (and here), a major challenge for pursuing Brexit is that there is no clarity on either side about what the objective might be.
That in turn makes it almost impossible to know how to get to a conclusion of any kind, let alone one that meets the needs of the various negotiating parties.
At the same time, I find myself increasingly bored with having to say that there’s no real plan on the table and that nobody is trying: it’s easy to take an ‘academic’ perspective and point out problems without offering any solutions. In that spirit, I’m going to offer a solution to you, right now.
In essence, what is proposed is a mechanism that could lead to a new UK-EU relationship. Recall that Article 50 only deals with immediate arrangements for a member state’s exit, running alongside another negotiation for the future. Practically speaking, the points below represent the second half of that Article 50 agreed text.
The first half would deal with the immediate practicalities of leaving – employment of UK nations in the institutions, re-location of agencies, etc – Andrew Duff and David Allen Green are good on these elements (here and here). Think of this as the partner moving out of the family home and the immediate changes that happen (‘I’m taking my toothbrush and a suitcase of clothes’): what follows is more like the divorce procedings proper.
The proposal is predicated three core assumptions. Firstly, that the UK must leave the EU, as per the referendum result. Secondly, that the EU27 are willing to tolerate some ambiguity and flux, if it maintains a working relationship with the UK. Thirdly, that since the UK is a member state now, it is easier to work from that starting point than one of no relationship at all.
I accept now that all three assumptions can be (and are) challenged, but in the absence of a solid and agreed alternative agenda, there is still a good chance that this approach might be acceptable.
In particular, the model doesn’t make any assumption about what the final relationship will look like. Rather than just tell you what my ‘red lines’ are – which is of little interest to anyone but me – it is aimed at encouraging a rolling debate in the UK (and the EU27) about where issues specifically lie and ways in which to address them.
Enough set-up, now for the detail. The text would cover the following core elements (comments in italics):
Some final comments
This is a sketch of an idea, but one that I want to come back to. I appreciate that many readers will have problems with it, and I’d like to read those. Recall however that the intention is to establish a framework, not a particular objective. For this to work, it needs a British government that is sufficiently engaged with the matter both to support public debate within the UK and to discuss matters with the EU27. It also needs an EU27 that feel that UK will be a reliable negotiating partner: if not, then it is unlikely to support this kind of approach.