Just rocking the boat?

Jakob Hensing on the international rationale behind the British EU referendum.

A couple of days ago on this blog, Jan Eichhorn commented on German perceptions of David Cameron’s announcement of a referendum on British EU membership to be held in 2017. Simplifying a bit, the essence of his argument was that this announcement ought to be seen as a response to domestic pressures, and as an attempt to strengthen the Tories’ position on an issue that genuinely resonates with the British public – betraying a rationale often pursued by politicians, including German ones. Jan also noted that there are still several years left until the referendum, and that its realisation remains contingent on the outcome of the 2015 elections. While I agree with most of the points that Jan has made in his article, as another German currently living in the UK (and spending his days thinking about international politics), I am tempted to offer a different, less domestically focused, take on the issue.

Mr Cameron’s current position is hardly enviable in many respects, as he faces an array of urgent policy challenges, difficulties in maintaining a coalition government in a political system accustomed to single party majorities, emerging challengers from the right, and consistently vocal detractors from within his own party. Counterintuitively though, some of these woes may indeed strengthen, rather than weaken, his hand in negotiations in the EU. Building on seminal work by game theorist Thomas Schelling, this idea has most succinctly been outlined by Robert Putnam as the “logic of two-level games”. In international negotiations, it is advantageous for an actor to be able to credibly invoke domestic constraints that make it impossible to strongly deviate from his or her preferred bargaining outcome. In the context of the EU, other member states may feel compelled to make more concessions to the UK than they otherwise would, knowing that in 2017 a referendum is looming in which an EU-sceptical electorate will have the ultimate say on British membership. Mr Cameron’s public announcement of the referendum has clearly given a boost to the credibility of this threat – borrowing from Schelling, Cameron has shown that he is genuinely willing to “rock the boat” of British EU membership.

While it is hard to quantify the relative importance of this point as opposed to the domestic objectives that Jan has pointed out, it strikes me as rather implausible that this logic didn’t play any role for the British government. However, the approach is clearly not without risks: if the bargaining partners do not perceive the domestic constraint to be credible or are simply too fed up with another British attempt to extract concessions, there may well be a referendum in 2017 on membership in an EU that does not conform to broad British preferences. And while some hardliners may actually want the country to leave the EU, that is far from clear for more moderate figures like Mr Cameron. Indeed, one aspect of the British debate that I find increasingly disconcerting consists in the disingenuous alternative scenarios to EU membership that are often being discussed. In essence, many EU critics would like to maintain full free trade with the EU while not being a member, an arrangement that The Economist has aptly described as the “equivalent of eating in a restaurant but not paying the cover charge”. Similar aspirations inform the notion that the UK may remain a non-EU member of the European Economic Area (EEA) like Norway, or attain an arrangement similar to the one of Switzerland. Although even some German journalists somehow seem to believe that this may actually happen, it is hard to see why other member states would agree to such a deal.

So in sum, my assumption is that most British politicians (Tories included) would actually only want a referendum if the brinkmanship bargaining tactic is successful. This is not only somewhat reckless but also normatively problematic. A referendum is an exceptional occurrence in most representative democracies, offering a way to reach an authoritative and widely legitimate decision on an issue of such fundamental importance as EU membership. But such legitimacy requires the commitment to the referendum to be a genuine and sincere one. As Jan has correctly pointed out, it remains to be seen whether the referendum will actually take place in 2017 – for the moment, the possibility that the announcement largely served ulterior motives, be they domestic or international, leaves me wondering whether the day of Mr. Cameron’s speech was necessarily a good one for direct democracy in Europe.

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