Brexit: Project Chaos

A referendum is a particularly bad method to make decisions about the European Union.

A referendum is a bad way to take any decision. This is not because the people are stupid. With time and a decent basis of facts most people make sensible decisions; but they rarely have either. We delegate decisions to parliaments precisely to enable a group of people we have chosen for this purpose, to go into complicated questions at proper length and in proper depth. Competitive argument can sort out the best policy, just as competitive markets identify the best products. But this takes time, and study, and both are absent in referendum campaigns. These arguments were put with force and clarity in the Commons debate on the 1974 referendum by the new leader of the Conservative opposition, one Margaret Thatcher.

A referendum is a particularly bad method to make decisions about the European Union. The institutions are unfamiliar and few people know much about what they do, unless they happen to be, for example, farmers and then their knowledge is probably limited to one field. Even where the EU is active, for example in consumer protection or energy security, not many people associate this with the EU. Issues that concern most people, such as health care, education, or social security are dealt with by national governments. Argument about the European Union tends therefore to be abstract and remote from everyday life. That does not make it unimportant. Membership of the EU shapes our state and its international environment, as do those other abstractions, democracy and the rule of law.

The debate on the EU is all the more difficult because it does not fit into our normal political vocabulary. Technically, you could describe the European Union as a federation—some laws are made at the center in Brussels, and some in national capitals. But this gives the false impression that it is something like the Federal Republic of Germany or the USA. In spite of the imaginings of some Euroskeptics the EU is more modest and more original.

At the heart of the British debate about the EU is the highly abstract notion of sovereignty. This is not an easy or familiar term. The man in the street who is expected to vote in the referendum does not use it much in everyday conversation. Even the intellectuals of the Conservative party, a good number of whom seem to be Euroskeptics, mix up the idea of national sovereignty and the sovereignty of Parliament. The second is a specifically British constitutional principle, meaning, more or less, that there is no higher authority than Parliament, and that this has the power to enact whatever laws it chooses. In accordance with parliamentary sovereignty, Parliament has passed legislation delegating some of its authority to the EU institutions—in legal terms redefining Parliament to include the European institutions for some areas of legislation.

As for national sovereignty, the fact is the EU is a community of law and cooperation among sovereign states. They (mostly) act in accordance with the laws and decisions they make jointly, but they are still sovereign. Sovereignty is visible in the monopoly each has on the use of force, in their monopoly on democratic legitimacy, and above all in the fact that, when a crisis arises that goes beyond the scope of the treaties, the authority to resolve it comes from the member states, not from the European institutions. This is what we see in the migration crisis, and in the problems of the Euro. The reality is that in any serious crisis EU laws and procedures are set aside while the sovereign states that make up the EU take the necessary decisions.

Even so the concept of sovereignty is not straightforward: Is it meaningful to talk of “sharing sovereignty?” If sovereignty means absolute power that hardly makes sense. Are some more sovereign than others? In the Euroskeptic vision, Norway is sovereign, not having sacrificed its sovereignty to Brussels as Britain has. And yet many of its laws are made for it by a body in which it has no voice. Is that sovereignty? And how is it that the sovereignty question is never raised in respect of NATO? Once the US has made its mind up, no one else has a choice. Did General de Gaulle have a point?

The debate on sovereignty is not made easier by an almost total absence of facts in the Euroskeptic case. There is not space here to list all the nonsense that these clever people come up with. A recent hearing by the UK Parliament’s Treasury Select Committee discussed some of Boris Johnson’s claims about European legislation with their author. One of these was that the EU prevented children under the age of eight from blowing up balloons. It turned out that what Mr. Johnson had described as a ban on under age blowing up of balloons was in fact a warning on packaging suggesting adult supervision; a claim that EU regulation prevented the recycling of teabags came not from the EU but from Cardiff City Council. Another claim about standardization of coffins was based on something from the Council of Europe that had never become law. Similar misrepresentations are to be found in most Euroskeptic statements. They do little to help voters understand what they are going to vote about.

A second Euroskeptic theme is that the EU is undemocratic. The EU Council, the primary decision making body, is made up of democratically elected governments; the European Parliament, which participates in many decisions, has regular and credible elections. It is true that the Commission is not elected by popular vote—but the Euroskeptics would run a mile at the idea that it should be. The question of democracy in Europe does indeed need further thought; but then so it does in Britain too—and not just because of the House of Lords. These are problems that should be tackled by debate and reform rather than by assertion and walk out.

The abstraction of these arguments takes us far away from the reality of the EU as a human institution. There is much that you miss if you look only at the descriptions of lawyers or political scientists. The EU is a system of rules; but the most important rules—as always with institutions— are the unwritten ones. The spirit is as important as the letter. The political rules by which the EU works are softer than those that are written in the Treaties; and they are subject to circumstances and personalities, but they are still rules.

These are the unwritten laws of compromise, of give and take, of mutual consideration, and sometimes even of solidarity. For years European policy towards Indonesia was governed by the question of East Timor. The Council did not care a lot about Indonesia’s takeover of East Timor, but they knew that this was a major issue in Portuguese domestic politics, the sort of thing that could bring governments down. Solidarity with Portugal was one of the main motives of policy. In the same way, for better or for worse, the Council has never put pressure on Greece on the question of the name “Macedonia.” Few in the EU understand the reasons for the Greek position, but they understand its importance to Greece. In the EU everyone depends on everyone else. You never know when you may need their help. When something is of vital importance to a colleague, you have to listen. This is the machinery of compulsory political fr

Solidarity kicked in as David Cameron’s “renegotiation” reached its climax. This was in spite of his talk about renegotiating “our relationship with the European Union,” which sounds as if Europe is a foreign country. When he got to Brussels he found that the European Union is us, not an abstract entity that compels the UK to do this and that, but a political community in which we have a big say. And perhaps at the European Council, when discussion kept everyone in Brussels an extra unwelcome night, the prime minister discovered that the EU works not by seals and parchments but by political friendship, even for Britain, even when it is making a nuisance of itself.

So when he opened the campaign to stay in, the prime minister put at top of his list of reasons, not trade—as you would expect from the nation of shopkeepers—but security. This is the security of belonging to a political community of mutual solidarity. This is the real difference between being in and out. It is something almost unknown in international politics, hard to understand and difficult to convey, unless you experience it personally. In a dangerous world, where the norm in relations between states is suspicion and hostility, it is something to cherish.

If “in” means more than the treaties convey, “out” may also mean “out” in a nastier way. With the bonds of mutual solidarity broken, the temptation among the remaining members of the EU may be to operate on the basis of every-man-for-himself, the normal procedure in international affairs. In a post-exit negotiations with the UK (or with England, if the process of disintegration has been taken further), the pace could be set by the toughest, and then written into a rigid joint position. This would bring difficult negotiations. Remaining EU members will have an interest in maintaining access to the UK market; but none of them would be under the same pressure as the UK for whom the EU still accounts for about 50% of UK exports. This would not be a negotiation of equals; Lenin’s question: “Who, whom?” applies.

This is the worst case. Perhaps Britain would be rescued by EU nationals resident there putting pressure on their home governments to preserve free movement. But there are no guarantees. That is precisely the point of being out: The EU is a system of mutual obligation. Britain would be free of the constraints that Euroskeptics find onerous; but the others would also be free of all restraints in dealing with Britain. So, no guarantees.

The “leave” campaign does not tell this story. In fact it does not tell any story at all. It is strange that those who campaign so hard to leave have nothing to say about how they see life outside the EU. Instead they tell us only that, after leaving, everything will be just as it is now, only better. (The Scottish campaign to leave the UK said just the same). When those who want to remain point to the risks, they label this “project fear.” The future the Euroskeptics propose might in turn be labeled “project chaos.” On leaving the EU, the UK would find itself without any trade agreements with any country, and with few people who had the experience to negotiate new ones; a large amount of UK legislation would need to be replaced; Scotland would demand a new referendum on independence; the position of Northern Ireland would be at risk, Wales too perhaps.

The economic case for EU membership is strong, but trade is not what matters most. Trade features in the pro-EU case because it is tangible, easy to quantify, easy to understand. But the heart of the EU is the European political community. Meanwhile its institutions all need reform: There must be something wrong if the story of the Union is so poorly understood by the public.

If the UK survives this monumental gamble, in spite of the miserable condition of Europe today, in spite of the misrepresentations and the Euroskeptic media, then it will owe its EU partners for their help in saving us from our own foolishness. The way to repay this debt is by working with them for real reform. That means, above all, looking at the question of democratic legitimacy. This is the great weakness of the EU; only democracy can bring the great Euro-bureaucracy under control and to give it a sense of direction beyond self-preservation.

Sir Robert Francis Cooper

KCMG, MVO (born 1947 in Essex, United Kingdom) is a British diplomat and advisor currently serving as a Special Advisor at the European Commission with regard to Myanmar. He is also a member of the European Council on Foreign Relations and is an acclaimed publisher on foreign affairs.

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