Athens, June 27, 2016
Article by Evangelos Venizelos on his personal website
British exit - European transformation
Conjuncture, History, Democracy
The British referendum forces us to turn our attention once more to the fundamental issues: the relation of conjuncture, history and democracy. The relation between the European integration and the sovereignty of member states. The relation between European and national consciousness. It forces us to turn to matters that, while seemingly abstract and theoretical, have a very strict, specific and practical content.
The British referendum was called to serve internal political ends, to facilitate the victory of the Tories in 2015, in order to ensure the coherence of the now ruling party and incorporate conservative eurosceptics into Mr. Cameron’s election majority. Within the one year that has since passed, the conjuncture has become strongly anti-European, primarily due to the refugee crisis. No austerity measure came to pass in the United Kingdom. No memoranda have been implemented.
The British election conjuncture in May 2015 was transformed into a British referendum conjuncture in 2016. All these happened in the name of democracy and the appeal to the sovereign will of the British people. History just waited to record the situation and submit to it. Even temporarily.
The British referendum is the greatest proof of the contradiction that exists between the intergovernmental complexity of European integration, which requires constant negotiations and compromise among member states and the simplification and vanity of each individual national referendum. I hope I am not causing any shocks by saying that the European project, being complex and intergovernmental, is associated with the institutional acquis of representative democracy that protects the balance between democracy, sovereignty and integration. Of course we have to respect the national constitutional procedures of member states that provide for referendums. Let us bear in mind though that a pan-European referendum of primary character would appear very democratic, but it would cause enormous issues of national sovereignty and national constitutional order in almost all member states and would lead to the dissolution of the Union due to excessive political and institutional voluntarism.
Thus, the first thing that the British referendum reminds us is that the course of the European integration has been excised from the historical foundations of European coexistence. It has lost its historical memory and perspective. However, without these elements the European values do not acquire their full content and a single European strategy is not formed. Europe does not yet function as an integrated entity, but as a field of national strategies which clash or are settled within a continuous interstate (intergovernmental, as it is called) negotiation. This does not mean that there is no sense of a common European interest. Such a sense obviously exists, particularly within the eurozone. Nevertheless, the single currency of 19 states and the ECB interventions are still very far from the single European patriotism of 28 states; as far as the dissolution of the European project is from the enormous effort that has been made in the last 70 years to achieve the European integration.
In recent years, the challenge of the European project is rough and multi-layered. The crisis is not just a financial and fiscal crisis. It is a crisis of structural disparities among member states and an overall crisis of the European model of competitiveness. The economic crisis, along with the demographic crisis has led to a general crisis of the European welfare state. The international political weakness of the EU, combined with the proximity to the Middle East and North Africa has led to the refugee crisis and new forms of terrorist threat, i.e. an internal security crisis.
These conditions favor the resurgence of the classic clash between European integration and national sovereignty. The EU is identified in the minds of European citizens with the multiple crisis and its consequences. From the various versions of Euroscepticism, the strongest ones are not the “anti-capitalist” or even the “anti-neoliberal”, but those that refer to national sovereignty and identity. The national state operates as a community. It offers a sense of belonging. It retains the symbolism of national sovereignty. No one deals with reality. “Illusions” prevail.
The United Kingdom has a privileged relationship with these perceptions. After all it joined the EU belatedly, not only because of De Gaulle. It always maintained a sense of its size and role as a former empire, as a military mechanism, as a permanent member of the Security Council. It passionately fought for the so- called British exception. It remained outside the eurozone and the Schengen treaty. It always calculates precisely its balance of payments with the EU and does not forget for a minute that it is a net contributor. It treats with fearful arrogance the “poor relatives” of other member states, who allegedly claim British social benefits. It forgets how much of a boost to the British economy foreign workers, businessmen, students, homeowners are. On the other hand, it wants to be the cosmopolitan financial center of all Europe (including the eurozone) and, if possible, the entire world economy. It wants to guide European developments communication-wise, while at the same it gloats over the problems of the eurozone.
It seems that the majority of the British people had not taken sufficiently into account the heterogony of ends. That is, the way EU membership acts as a guarantee for the cohesion of the United Kingdom: state cohesion in respect to Scotland and Northern Ireland, and social cohesion in terms of age and educational stratification and place of residence.
The famous Article 50 TEU on the withdrawal of a state from the Union, as well as the principles of subsidiarity, proportionality and the conferred character of Union competences exist to give answers to the historical and institutional Eurosceptics who do not want more Union or the pro-European sceptics who know that the artificial exaggeration may endanger the entire European project. However, these were provided for in the Treaties as pressure relief valves and not as backdoors.
The British choice to exit brings therefore the UK and the 27 EU member states before historical dilemmas. My phrase is precise. I think the real dilemma for the British is becoming fully understood now, after the referendum and the majority that has been formed. Technically, the distance between the compromise of 19/02/2016, which would apply in the event of the UK remaining in the EU and the terms of a special relationship the UK will negotiate for now, as a third country, with the EU, cannot be great. The symbolic and political distance, however, is huge. Therefore, both sides have to moderate the respective impact of the withdrawal through the speedy conclusion and the insight of the content of the UK/EU agreement. This venture is difficult, however, because all member states will have a say in accordance with their national constitutional procedures, some of which might lead to referendums. Europe will be plagued a lot more by the British withdrawal, which will de facto cause the EU's transformation, due to institutional reasons.
Thus, nothing can be the same, simple or technical in Europe. The initiative lies with the member states, which should agree on policy decisions with full historical consciousness. They have to agree on the greatest possible political initiatives in the frames of the complex and delicate process of making critical EU decisions which is intergovernmental and subject to the requirements of the national constitutions of all member states. Unfortunately, what is required is extremely difficult, as it is connected with international and mainly internal circumstances, variations, randomness and expediencies in 27 member states with different electoral cycles. Germany and France agreeing on the same views is not enough, nor is Italy's participation in tripartite consultations.
Obviously there is, at the same time, alarge margin for moves to change the social and economic climate within the existing European institutional schema, by taking decisions at the level of the European Council, the Council of the EU and the ECB. There is significant margin for facilitating mechanisms such as the European Investment Bank and the European Stability Mechanism. There is always the possibility of more effective initiatives in relation to the refugee issue, the EU - Turkey deal etc.
However, in the USA, which could now operate in a much more creative way as an international political partner and as an economic competitor, the election period is under way, under conditions of “American scepticism” that is in many ways comparable to Euroscepticism.
In this new landscape of volatile correlations, Greece is no longer the most “famous” problem of the Union. Paradoxically, this is not something positive. Being the central problem acts to a large extent as a protection. Now, unfortunately, the behavior of the governments and parliaments of the member states will be determined more by internal political expediency criteria. Greece is, after all, weakened, again due to internal reasons; reasons of internal simplification and expediency, both being gentle names for the foundations of the broad spectrum of European populism. In other words, Greece is weak, not because of dependence on the third loan that was made a necessity in July 2015, but because society - the Greek people more precisely- has not created the conditions for the national seriousness and responsibility that are based on the understanding and acceptance of the truth. Let us hope that some people will begin to think in a different way now.