Debating the EU: How can we do it?

I was talking to a friend yesterday evening, who felt that a referendum on EU membership was a good thing. He agreed with my point that what the UK (and the Union more generally) needed was a full public debate, but saw a referendum as a way to kick-start that into life.

Fortunately, the rest of the evening was spent talking of other things, so we didn’t really get stuck into this topic, but as we move into the summer recess in the life of the Union, it’s instructive to consider the point a bit further.


Discussion facilitator

Both my friend and I could easily look around and see that there isn’t a proper debate going on right now.

To pick some random examples, the Dalli court case has generated media interest only within the Brussels bubble and in Malta, even though it raises a number of important questions about the way the Commission is run and the influence of lobbyists (see my post from when it all kicked off). Likewise, following Juncker’s nomination as Commission president, there doesn’t seem to be much interest in the potentially rather difficult confirmation by the Parliament itself: his hearings with groups yesterday have been presented almost exclusively through the prism of national issues. And even the exclusion of the EFDD group from chairing a Parliament committee didn’t stimulate much interest or comment.

So if we can agree that it’s all a bit rubbish right now, we don’t agree on the remedy.

My big difficulty with a referendum is that it is a false binary: yes or no. But ‘yes or no’ to what and with what consequence? If we vote no, what does that mean: have nothing to do with the rEU (sic), try for a free trade area, something else? If we vote yes, does that mean we have to love the EU and all its works, or carry on grumbling, or push for reform?

That last option was the one my friend pointed to. If Cameron won the referendum, he would ‘have a mandate to press for change.’ But this neglects that the referendum will be prefaced by a renegotiation: could a British government seriously go back again to other member states and say: “thanks for the concessions and flexibility you showed us to help us get through that vote. Can you please now give us some more?” As I noted to my friend, there is a lot more talk than there used to be in other European capitals about just giving up on the UK if they are going to be such pains.

This also raises the question of the next Commissioner from the UK. The combination of the Juncker nomination debacle and the lack of strong and willing candidates (See James Landale’s very helpful guide) make it hard to see how that individual might end up with a decent portfolio, even though no Brit is in the frame for a top job in the other institutions: Cathy Ashton was the big sop to the UK last time round, so the cases for Eastern Europeans have more traction right now.

This can be seen in one of two ways. Firstly, it’s a failure of British policy: too much annoying of partners, too little trying to patch things up. This reflects Cameron’s chronic lack of strategic direction on the EU and his buffeting by backbenchers, but also the longer run unwillingness of successive governments to raise their game.

But secondly, it’s also a failure of the EU that it has got to this situation. As I’ve written recently, the Union works as a consensus-builder, which is fine as long as you’re part of that consensus. But that consensus is not endlessly accommodating and the UK has been allowed to drift to the edge of it.

This brings us back to the starting point, the lack of public debate.  The weakness of interconnection between national debates and the debate happening in Brussels makes it very hard for non-nationals to make any contribution that isn’t just ignored or stamped upon (the “what’s it got to do with you” approach): in recent years, probably only Radek Sikorski has been able to get past that and even he’s now got other things to be thinking about. Any referendum debate will merely reinforce that process: “it’s our decision, so we’ll discuss among ourselves about what we do.”

Of course, none of this offers an alternative mechanism for having the debate: maybe that’s something for another evening’s discussion.