‘More’ and ‘Less’ Europe in the Summit Aftermath (with that ‘less’ being Britain?)

Prof. Peter Lindseth

Following last week’s dramatic events at the European summit, here is the first of a series of posts in reaction to the summit’s outcome.

In the aftermath of last week’s potentially fateful European summit in Brussels, one has to feel for David Cameron.  He was caught between numerous conflicting functional, political, and cultural pressures, and negotiating between them was no easy task.

But to understand his difficulties is not to absolve him of the result he achieved.  On balance, the result appears (potentially) negative for Britain and, perhaps more importantly, for Europe as a whole, which desperately needs to find a new formula for a more sustainable form of integration with the UK in it.  Britain could have positioned itself as the defender of that more sustainable vision of ‘Europe’, balancing a functionally necessary rescue of the common currency against the political-cultural need for some constraints in the interest of democracy and legitimacy.  But instead the British government cast itself as the defender of the City under the guise of protecting ‘British interests’, apparently in a way that was ultimately seen by other negotiators as hypocritical and damaging to the single market that Britain purportedly set out to defend.  Therein was Cameron’s fundamental mistake.

Events over the next several weeks and months may render this mistake moot, or at least of less significance, and that is why the damage at this point remains potential. The functional unsustainability of the currency union as it currently stands, or of German plans to save it only through fiscal discipline, may show that a choice for ‘isolation’ was the right tactical choice for now.  Moreover, national parliaments among the other 26 member states may yet question whether they are willing to limit their fiscal sovereignty in the pursuit of such a questionable policy, particularly if it condemns them to years of severe cutbacks, low growth, and social unrest.  And national constitutional courts may find this very same limitation of fiscal sovereignty to come dangerously close to, or even potentially to cross the line over into, a constitutionally unacceptable alienation of sovereignty. The result may be changes in the current plans for fiscal union, or at least several member states dropping out, in a way that further erodes the seeming 26-1 united front against the UK.

But all that remains in the future, albeit not as distant as one might suppose, and right now the Prime Minister has some more pressing political difficulties on his hands.  The Coalition is under obvious strain, with Nick Clegg (pressured from within his own party) now openly voicing his displeasure with Cameron’s negotiating.  It would be ironic, to say the least, that as a consequence of last week’s summit the Coalition crumbles and we will then need to add the UK to the list of member states whose governments have fallen in response to the Eurozone crisis.  I doubt that will happen, but then I’m not expert in British politics.

Regardless of what happens domestically, however, political pressures will almost certainly lead Britain to renew its search for allies among other national governments—Ireland, for example, has already made clear the importance of Britain remaining in the Eurozone negotiations.  And presumably other member states, most especially Eurozone ‘outs’, will recognize the need for Britain to remain squarely in the discussions, to counterbalance the German (or, Franco-German) ‘motor’.  Indeed, both Merkel and Sarkozy face their own domestic political challenges that may hamper their capacity to maintain a united front, and either of them may, in the fluid dynamics of this crisis, still need an ally in David Cameron, even if he is currently out of favor.  This is especially true of Germany, which still regards Britain ‘as a useful ally in balancing out French tendencies towards trade protectionism and state domination of industry, which run counter to Berlin’s economic interests’.

But for the British government to re-enter the discussions in a credible way, it will need to come up with a negotiating line that moves beyond merely protecting ‘British interests’.  That sort of baldly nationalist tact failed de Gaulle in the ‘empty chair’ crisis of the mid-1960s just as it will fail Cameron today—the fantasies of hardened Eurosceptics notwithstanding.  Consensus politics will again be the norm in the European Council, and Britain must find a way to play that game.

It has been clear for quite a while that saving the common currency would require ‘more Europe’ of some kind, so opposing it for its own stake makes little sense. Nevertheless, there remains a significant political current in the several member states that would favor balancing ‘more Europe’ with sensible constraint—i.e., ‘less’ Europe of some kind.  Britain must try to become the voice of this more moderate eurosceptical current at the negotiating table.  The aim should be to counter-balance the functionally-required consolidation of fiscal oversight demanded by Germany with new mechanisms and substantive protections to preserve both the integrity of the single market and, more importantly, national forms of constitutional democracy in a historically recognizable sense.  It is no doubt a tough balance to strike in the circumstances.  But the British government should be working assiduously to identify concrete and constructive policy measures that cohere around this theme (I’d be interested in hearing from readers if they have ideas along these lines).

This is the higher ground to which Cameron should now try to move the British negotiating position.  Otherwise the ‘less’ Europe that ends up balancing the ‘more’ in this crisis will be a Europe without Britain.  And that is certainly in no one’s interest.

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