Jul 27 2015

The UK’s EU referendum and the EU’s legitimacy crisis

By Kirsty Hughes

“Is a UK that retreats in isolationist but somehow progressive splendour really feasible? Surely, European countries must cooperate in the face of the deep challenges and opportunities we face.”

It is a tough moment to make a positive case for the EU. The bullying treatment of Greece, based on destructive and discredited neo-liberal policies and beliefs indicates that the EU has lost its political, moral and economic compass.

Nor is this crisis of legitimacy in the EU just the product of the last few months. The impact of the global economic and financial crisis on the EU and eurozone, resulting in the euro crisis, has been sorely mishandled for the last seven years – with political, democratic and economic failings.

UK Flag Wavy A European Union that views with passivity and equanimity the catastrophically high levels of unemployment, and especially youth unemployment, that persist across several member states due to the crisis, is an EU that has lost its way and forgotten its purpose and values; it is one where the behaviour of the eurogroup countries, and the treatment of Greece as a protectorate, is poisoning the EU’s very raison d’etre.

Should the UK go?

In the face of this, is there now a stronger case for the UK to leave the European Union, as some on both left and right have been arguing (notably the Guardian‘s Owen Jones in a recent piece)? Or is this not like making a case to abandon parliamentary democracy in the UK because we are opposed to the Tory government that our democratic system produced? As Caroline Lucas has argued, in response to Owen Jones, “profoundly re-imagining what a reformed EU might look like shouldn’t be left to David Cameron” – or one might add, the majority right-wing governments of the EU currently so undermining the Union.

Is a UK that retreats in isolationist but somehow progressive splendour really feasible? Surely, European countries must cooperate in the face of the deep challenges and opportunities we face.

EU failings in the face of external challenges

Yet, the EU, in part due to its excessive absorption in its own euro crisis, has been failing in the face of many of those challenges too – from the muddled, ‘fortress Europe’ reaction to the current migration crisis in the Mediterranean, to its deliberate slowdown on bringing the Balkan candidate countries into the EU, to its half-hearted and unsure policies on dealing with Putin’s revanchist Russia, or the retreat to authoritarianism in Egypt.

But none of these challenges would disappear if the EU closed down tomorrow. And this is the same EU, with its foreign policy supremo Federica Mogherini, who just played a significant part in the deal with Iran. It is the EU which, while not being a perfect voice in global climate change negotiations, has often pushed a more progressive agenda, albeit without managing to exert the same clout as the US or China.

This is, as well, the same EU that in its combined development aid spending from member states and European Commission together is the largest aid donor in the world. It is a Europe where a number of countries participated in the US’s appalling extraordinary rendition programme (though not as the EU), but one too where the European Parliament persisted in reporting on, investigating and discrediting that programme.

It is perhaps ironic that the European Union is often criticised for being technocratic; yet the current crisis of legitimacy of the EU derives more than anything from the choices of the current EU member state governments – most of whom are from the right rather than the left of the political spectrum.

The EU’s structures of cooperation, law-making and debate do not belong just to the current incumbent right-wing governments, they should be fought for not abandoned. Surely, what is needed is wide-ranging campaigning and argument against these policies and for a better Europe, not exit from the field.

Does the UK belong?

The UK is in a singular position in the EU, having already a semi-detached, opted-out status, resulting in the governments of Gordon Brown then David Cameron having the lowest influence in the EU in its entire 40 year membership.

This is not only the result of the UK not being in the eurozone, but it is also due to political decisions by Cameron (and before him Brown) not to engage on how the impact of the global economic crisis was handled in the EU. David Cameron and George Osborne have very deliberately stood back from that in the last several years. And their own brand of ‘euroscepticism-lite’ has also meant they have played a much smaller, and more obstructive role in a range of EU foreign policy debates and discussions both in the EU’s neighbourhood and more broadly.

But this loss of influence can be reversed. The current debacle over Greece has shown very clearly the political dominance and centrality of the euro group of countries. The UK, as one of the largest EU member states, could certainly re-assert itself and drive debates across the EU from tackling unemployment to climate change to migration. What is clear though, is that the current policy positions of the Cameron government – with Labour’s policy stances in some disarray – would not be progressive on most of these issues.

So it is a domestic and national political debate that has to be won, as well as a pan-European debate, argument and campaign for more progressive policies, if the UK is to reassert itself in a positive way in the EU.

EU is a mixture of corporate and social

It is also too easy to caricature the EU as a corporate playground. Free movement of people – to work, live or study in another EU country – is something to be welcomed (if not by UKIP) and not simply, or even mainly, a mechanism for promoting corporate deregulation and profit.

EU competition laws sometimes challenge some of the biggest corporations; the EU has tackled extortionate mobile roaming charges. And social policy is not extinct: the UK’s new laws in the last decade against age discrimination at work come out of a directive first agreed in Brussels in 2001. The EU’s information and consultation directive, giving workers in larger companies some minimum rights in the face of redundancies, was opposed by Blair’s first government – but under EU majority voting rules, the UK finally had to back down.

And while David Cameron may want to roll back some of the EU’s social and employment policies – to revert to the Tories ‘social chapter opt-out’ that Blair reversed – it is highly unlikely in the current climate that he would achieve such a wide-ranging opt-out.

The transatlantic trade and investment partnership (TTIP) negotiations are of considerable concern and potentially very damaging in a number of areas: but the ongoing pan-European campaigning, that has led to mass lobbying of the European Parliament, has been highly influential.

This is live and participative politics. And with the UK government as one of the main proponents of a more deregulated deal, it is not obvious why leaving the EU would position the UK in a less rather than more deregulated free trade environment (as Caroline Lucas has cogently argued). If the EU (without the UK as a member) did a deal with the US on creating a transatlantic trade area, what would the UK do – not access that trade area or just take on all its conditions without having had a say?

Making the anti-austerity case

The EU is an organisation that reflects both its long-term aims, laws and rules and its contemporary politics. As such it is always a mixture of the left-wing, progressive and right-wing. What is surely of greatest concern at present is the neoliberal, right-wing dominance of the eurozone, and the incorporation of neoliberal, anti-Keynesian tenets into eurozone treaties and agreements. Some leaders, notably EU President Donald Tusk, have so absorbed a belief in these policies, that any counter-proposals including Keynesian macro-economic arguments are labelled extremist.

But the UK is not part of the eurozone. And if it is outside the EU altogether, even if one day under an anti-austerity government, the UK won’t be able to exert its influence to the benefit of young unemployed in Greece, Spain, Portugal or Italy, joining up to make the case for changing this deeply damaging and anti-democratic mantra from within the eurozone. Rather it would be in a ‘fax democracy’ position like Norway ie on the receiving end of EU policies or lacking access to the EU’s markets, universities and so on.

The idea that the UK leaving the EU could somehow assist in promoting anti-austerity across the continent, as Owen Jones argues, is puzzling. How could “the threat of Brexit” help Syriza and Podemos as Jones suggests, when the UK’s Tory government is utterly ignored in current eurozone debates (where US pronouncements have clearly been at least listened to).

If the UK did vote to leave, the chances are high that the UK’s own union would dissolve and an independent Scotland would join the EU, leaving behind it a not very progressive England as a rather isolated state on the edge of Europe.

Referenda are blunt tools. The British population will be invited next year to vote on whether it wants the UK to stay as a semi-opted out member of an EU in the midst of a moral, political and economic crisis.

There won’t be an option on the voting form for saying the UK must rebuild its influence, and the EU change direction. That is what participative democracy has to do. But any progressive economic, political and foreign policy approach to global and European challenges surely must make the case for the UK to cooperate with all the other countries in Europe. And the ability of the UK to do that outside of the EU is close to zero.

This article orginally appeared on Open Democracy.

Note: This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of the Euro Crisis in the Press blog nor of the London School of Economics.


Kirsty Hughes is a writer and commentator on European and international politics. She has worked at a number of leading European thinktanks including Chatham House, Friends of Europe, and the Centre for European Policy Studies and has published extensively including books, reports and as a journalist. She has also worked as a senior political adviser in the European Commission, for Oxfam as head of advocacy, and was CEO at Index on Censorship.

Related articles on LSE Euro Crisis in the Press:

Would the United Kingdom survive an exit from the EU?

The Meaning of a British Exit from the European Union

The Double Death of Europe



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