Who is the real snob?

Reflections on German commentary about the planned EU referendum in the UK – by Jan Eichhorn.

We often demand that politicians listen to the view of the electorate more extensively – to adjust their positions and policies as a sign of responsiveness between elections. Sometimes, it seems, we should be more careful in considering what we wish for.

Recently David Cameron, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, announced in a long-awaited speech that the citizens of the UK will have the chance to decide in a referendum whether or not their country shall remain part of the European Union in 2017. A lot of speculation and analysis has been offered about this announcement and surely the issue is complex with a variety of motivations at play. Cameron had to respond to a vocal group of vehement EU-sceptics in his own party and has said that he hopes a referendum will help to settle some of the continuous fundamental debates going on the country. He proposes the referendum to take place after a set of deep reforms of the EU that would see certain powers to be reinstated with the member states.

To a German residing in the UK (like myself) or generally interested in British politics the story may appear to fit presumed patterns: The Brits once again want their own way and think that they can cherry-pick. The British government does not really understand the continent and does not really care as their interests are merely economical. A lot of Germans may also be quite sceptical of UK conservative prime ministers in general as well – probably not able to escape some flashing images of Margaret Thatcher briefly appearing on the inner eye. We may also be upset about the UK’s position to not join “our” formidable plans of reforming banks – again being the ones who just block everything in the European Union that we think (or should I say “know”) is the only appropriate path forward.

Even if some of these images appear to hold some truth upon closer inspection (while others would reveal a much greater deal of complexity and certain element of German narcissistic self-righteousness) the tone is clear – and mostly shared across German news media. While we may agree that the EU needs some reforms, the UK government keeps blocking real ones. What they want is just benefits for the UK, not an actually functioning European Union. And we sometimes quickly add how that is not surprising considering the curious amusement we have indulge in when we think about British politics, with a House of Lords filled with aristocrats (which is only partially true nowadays) and politicians that follow strange debating styles they must have learnt at their elite universities.

While there may be many valid and important points of disagreement on UK policies towards the European Union from the point of view of a continental country like Germany, there is one mistake we should not make: Letting our intuitive images of British politics suggest that we are only dealing with the positions of a small Cambridge and Oxford elite political class. To the contrary, many polls in the UK have demonstrated exhaustively how critical its citizens are about the European Union and how many would prefer to exit it (often a majority or at least a very substantial minority). It is a finding that is not only applicable to some regions or classes – we find strong EU-sceptics across the socio-economic spectrum (with some variation of course) and in all parts of the UK.

Of course it would be simplistic to argue that elite discourses do not influence public views. But if we want to understand the British position in EU-level negotiations focussing commentary on the history of British leaders’ strategies and superficial observations on British politics, we will not get very far. Politicians who want to be (re-)elected need to convince publics. Even when issues and motivations are more complex, as in this case for David Cameron, it is hard to deny that offering the public an “in-or-out” referendum does constitute a response to views and voices of (at least large parts of) the public. Regardless of whether we agree or disagree with the approach and positions of the UK government, this move will be welcomed by those citizens who want to take a decision on the UK’s position towards the EU. In a lead-up to an election in 2015 which may be difficult for the current government considering extensive public spending cuts and repeated spells of small or negative economic growth, it could be an issue to win votes.

This leads to a final observation: 2017 is in four years – a very long time in politics. As many commentators in Britain have stated whether the referendum will actually take place is by no means assured. If the conservatives do not win an outright majority in parliament its occurrence could be highly questionable. Many other factors will play into the process as well, partially to what extent David Cameron will succeed in affecting the negotiations about the EU’s future in the coming years. In the end, there may be more commonality – with regards to structures and processes – between the UK and Germany. It is hard to be as judging about the UK government when taking the perspective that it mainly acts out of interests of using EU stances to respond to the public to gain popularity in the lead up to elections, glossing over domestic dissatisfaction. Germans may be reminded of the approach of a certain chancellor of theirs – and how frequently the promises made about the country’s strong stance against certain EU policies was somewhat “softened” – after relevant elections.

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