Regardless of the result, the British referendum on European Union membership is a watershed moment. The campaign has already taught us important lessons about direct democracy, European integration and political communication. ‘Europe’ has changed as a consequence. The referendum may turn out to be a salutary experience; it may also set a destabilising precedent. We may nevertheless be wiser coming out of the process – at least in certain respects – than we were going into it.
This is not the first British referendum on membership in Europe, and Britain is not the only country to have asked its people what they think about European integration. Nevertheless, the British referendum campaign has underscored important aspects of direct democracy that need close attention.
The most important of these is the odd fit between direct participation and representative democracy. When people go to the polls to elect their representatives, they face the dilemma that the one choice they make will have many consequences during the lifetime of the parliament. As a result, representative democracy is about compromise on many different dimensions. Voters have to accept that the party they support will not necessarily align with their personal preferences on all issues. They also have to accept that their political leaders will have to respond to matters that are entirely new. As a result, voters in a representative democracy express confidence, as much as preference, when they cast their ballots. In turn, political parties assemble candidates who embody both clear commitments and good judgement. Once elected, those candidates will not always agree with one another, but they should work together to do what they think is best for their constituents, as well as what they think their constituents want.1
Direct democracy works according to a different logic, at least on the surface. The voters confront a single issue and must express a preference – usually yes or no, but in this case Remain or Leave.2 This decision seems to be straightforward: voters are either pro- or anti-EU. Beneath the surface, however, the choice is more complicated. Membership of the EU is not just about policy or a collection of policies – it is about who gets to make decisions. Whatever the outcome, the referendum campaign has already altered the balance of power within and between Britain’s major political parties.
EU membership is also about the procedures used for policymaking. The question is not whether British policymakers will continue to cooperate with the country’s close allies and partners, but rather how that cooperation will unfold. The contrasting alternatives evolve along multiple pathways: Leave campaigners offer multiple scenarios for how Britain will relate to the rest of Europe post-membership, while Remain campaigners provide different visions of what membership entails.
The interaction between representative and direct democracy is problematic as well. By appealing directly to the people, politicians tap into the wellspring of popular legitimacy. This offers both power and constraint. Should the voters express a clear preference, their representatives have little choice but to take note. As David Cameron said in his 2013 Bloomberg speech: ‘It is time for the British people to have their say. It is time to settle this European question in British politics.’3 Yet this assumes that the preferences expressed by the voters during the referendum are deeply held and that the coalitions that form on either side of the question are fixed.4
Representative democracy relies on no such pretence to permanence. On the contrary, the electoral process builds on the likelihood that voter preferences will change over time and so should be subject to periodic polling. Even then, there is provision for the possibility that unstable coalitions will emerge, and for the electorate to select a new set of representatives. The British system relies on first-past-the-post elections for single-member districts to clarify the preferences of the voters, and the Fixed-term Parliaments Act of 2011 raises obstacles to early elections.5 Nevertheless, the law allows for a return to the voters if members of parliament cannot form a stable coalition.
Given the complexities underlying the choice – not to mention the relative unfamiliarity that voters have with the process and the way the campaign has divided the main political parties – it would be odd to think that the preferences expressed by the British electorate would be permanent. If anything, it would be more reasonable to assume that the results would change depending upon a range of factors including turnout, salience and external events. Indeed, the contingent nature of the outcome is almost self-evident. Such contingency is consistent with the design features that make representative institutions democratic.
Yet referendums are not repeat contests. Hence, if the goal of calling this referendum was to end the conversation, the lesson is that such a strategy undermines democratic representation. This will not be the end of the debate, it will just be the end of parliamentary (as opposed to popular) sovereignty over the broader relationship between Great Britain and the European Union.
A second lesson concerns the nature of European integration. Two things have become apparent as a result of the referendum. One is that integration is not easily abandoned. The other is that participation in Europe is a social as well as a political experience. Both lessons reveal much about the meaning of ‘Europe’.
The question of reversibility is not unique to the British campaign. The same issue arose more forcefully in relation to Greece.6 The difference is that Greece is part of the single currency and a monetary union is by definition ‘irreversible’. The departure of any one participating country from the single currency would trigger speculation against all the rest. The same is not true for other aspects of Europe. An economic union is more flexible because it is less beholden to the kind of threshold effects that create the distinction between a monetary union and a fixed-exchange-rate regime.
The UK does not participate in the single currency. British membership in the European Union is categorical nonetheless. This can be seen most easily with reference to the EU as a ‘customs union’. The feature that distinguishes a customs union from a free-trade area is the existence of a common external commercial policy for all member states. By implication, the European Commission negotiates trade deals for all participating countries. The United Kingdom remains a member of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), just as it was a member of the preceding General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), and yet the EU is the official voice (and legal personality) for all EU member states in WTO deliberations.7 Should the British people vote to leave the EU, the British government will step out of the whole array of trade agreements negotiated by the European Commission and within the GATT and the WTO since the mid-1970s.8 In this sense, resigning membership is not just a question of renegotiating relations with the EU within the two years allotted by Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union.9 It is also a question of renegotiating relations with the rest of the world. Moreover, this categorical feature is not accidental. If anything, it is part of the reason that supranational organisations like the European Union exist.
At the turn of the century, an American political scientist named Lloyd Gruber (now working at the London School of Economics and Political Science) set out to explain why countries would participate in supranational organisations that they would have preferred not to join and from which they did not benefit directly.10 His argument did not focus on the awkward partnership between Great Britain and the European Union. On the contrary, his principal case studies were the North American Free Trade Agreement and the European Monetary System. Moreover, he rested his analysis on a thought experiment and not a direct measure of costs and benefits. Most political scientists assume that all countries benefit from cooperation and that mutual benefit explains why such cooperation takes place. Gruber asked whether and why countries might cooperate even where mutual benefit is not self-evident.
Gruber argued that countries would join supranational organisations they did not really want and from which they did not benefit because the creation of such organisations by other countries that have more to gain changes the status quo, and so deprives more reluctant countries of their preferred alternative. This argument would fit even the most pessimistic interpretation of the case for British EU membership. The world of stand-alone sovereign states simply no longer exists. Instead, we face a world of overlapping memberships of which participation in the EU is among the most important for a country like Great Britain.
Even reluctant countries stand to benefit
That change in the structure of international relations is not necessarily a bad thing. Although pro-integration countries use their go-it-alone power to build institutions that other countries reluctantly have to join, the result is not wholly one-sided, and even the reluctant countries stand to benefit in terms of the influence they gain over the organisation. That influence is the price that pro-integration countries must pay if they are to stave off the threat of rebellion (or exit). Gruber used this argument to explain why the countries that create supranational organisations build collective decision-making institutions to allow for the active participation of reluctant members, and to make them more responsive to changing preferences. Such institutions are what make international cooperation consistent with the design features for representative democracy, because preferences can change with a change of government in even the most pro-integration countries. The result is that supranational institutions are easier to reform than to leave.
That calculus changes when supranational institutions confront direct democracy (and the associated pretence of tapping into permanent expressions of popular legitimacy). So far, when voters have responded to referendums with the ‘wrong’ answer, European leaders have released the tension either by presenting symbolic concessions and calling a new vote – as happened with Denmark in the early 1990s or Ireland twice this century – or by making concessions that eliminated the requirement to go back to the electorate, which is what happened after the French and Dutch referendums on the European Constitutional Treaty. The British referendum is different insofar as it focuses directly on membership. It is hard to imagine what kind of concession could get around a vote to leave.
The social aspect of European integration is also important. The European Union is not just a set of institutions. It is also a collection of norms and conventions for how the member-state governments interact. The power of those norms is considerable, particularly with regard to awkward partners like the United Kingdom and Denmark. This is what Rebecca Adler-Nissen has revealed through her long-term interaction with British and Danish diplomats.11 British diplomats make great efforts to offer a positive contribution to Europe and succeed in exerting considerable influence. This argument resonates strongly with Gruber’s theory of supranational institution-building. Adler-Nissen’s analysis ends at around the same time that Cameron gave his Bloomberg speech. Nevertheless, it is not hard to imagine that the referendum campaign has strained relations between Britain’s diplomats and those of other countries. A popular vote to leave Europe – or the threat of future referendums to follow a narrow vote to remain – will put British diplomats in an even more awkward situation. The question is whether, and how much, Britain’s influence in Europe will suffer as a consequence.
What vision for Europe?
A third set of lessons from the Brexit campaign concerns political communication: the information politicians provide to the electorate, the arguments they use to tie that information together and the frames they construct around the broader conversation. I use the word ‘politicians’ in this context, but the category is much wider and includes the media, think tanks, academics and other interested observers – including the president of the United States.
Information about the EU is abundant, as are fact-checking websites to ensure that this information is accurate.12 The problem, however, is that the EU is a vast undertaking. As a result, there is both too much information about what the EU does and too little information about its overall impact. This is understandable, given the scope of the enterprise, but it is irreconcilable with the binary structure of the referendum question. The information does not point to an obvious conclusion, something that has long been the case with Europe.13
The arguments built on such partial information make matters worse. I have already written in this journal about the confusion that surrounds Europe’s internal market.14 The point could be made more strongly with respect to global trade, immigration or military defence.15 None of these issues makes for an incontrovertible case, and their contributions to the debate in substantive terms are often ambivalent. The silver-bullet argument for or against membership in the European Union cannot be made.
The framing of the conversation is what matters. The 1975 referendum revolved around a much simpler organisation, in the form of the European Economic Community, and had a clearer sense of mission expressed on both sides of the argument.16 Ultimately, the British people made a choice between them. This did not end the conversation, nor did it result in a docile and subservient British membership. On the contrary, it ushered in a long period of combative self-confidence and transformative influence exercised through representative democratic governments.17
A similar period seems unlikely to follow the current referendum. The reason is not so much the clarity of the outcome as a lack of purpose: a vision for reconciling representative democracy with the goals of European integration. This challenge is hardly limited to the United Kingdom – it is a vision that politicians across Europe are struggling to create. Where they fail, populists are quick to reach for the legitimacy they can tap through direct democracy. We may be wiser coming out of the British referendum, but there are limits to how much additional wisdom we can generate by repeating the experience – just as there are limits to how much of the tension created by referendum politics the institutions of Europe can tolerate.
1 Heinz Eulau, John C. Wahlke, William Buchanan and Leroy C. Ferguson, ‘The Role of the Representative: Some Empirical Observations on the Theory of Edmund Burke’, American Political Science Review, vol. 53, no. 3, September 1959, pp. 742–56.
2 The official question is: ‘Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?’ See http://www.electoralcommission.org.uk/find-information-by-subject/elections-and-referendums/upcoming-elections-and-referendums/eu-referendum/eu-referendum-question-assessment.
3 David Cameron, speech at Bloomberg, London, 23 January 2013, https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/eu-speech-at-bloomberg.
4 Matthias Matthijs, ‘David Cameron’s Dangerous Game: The Folly of Flirting with an EU Exit’, Foreign Affairs, vol. 92, no. 5, September/October 2013, pp. 10–16.
5 See ‘Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011’, http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2011/14/section/2/enacted.
6 Erik Jones, ‘The Euro: Irreversible or Conditional?’, Survival, vol. 57, no. 5, October–November 2015, pp. 29–46.
7 The UK does have some separate actions within the WTO but the bulk are under the EU. See https://www.wto.org/english/thewto_e/countries_e/united_kingdom_e.htm.
8 For the list of existing agreements, see http://ec.europa.eu/trade/policy/countries-and-regions/agreements/#_other-countries.
9 ‘Consolidated Version of the Treaty of the European Union’, Article 50, Official Journal of the European Union, 26 October 2012, http://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/PDF/?uri=CELEX:12012M/TXT&from=EN.
10 Lloyd Gruber, Ruling the World: Power Politics and the Rise of Supranational Institutions (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000).
11 Rebecca Adler-Nissen, Opting Out of the European Union: Diplomacy, Sovereignty and European Integration (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014). A review of this book is available in this issue of Survival.
12 For an overview and links to the different websites, see Roy Greenslade, ‘Websites Sort the Fact from the Fiction for EU Referendum Voters’, Guardian, 9 March 2016, http://www.theguardian.com/media/greenslade/2016/mar/09/websites-sort-the-facts-from-the-fiction-for-eu-referendum-voters.
13 See, for example, Anand Menon, Europe: The State of the Union (London: Atlantic Books, 2008); and Loukas Tsoukalis, What Kind of Europe? (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).
14 Erik Jones, ‘Confronting Europe’s Single Market’, Survival, vol. 58, no. 1, February–March 2016, pp. 59–67.
15 See, for example, Emily Cadman, ‘Economists for Brexit Dismiss Trade Fears’, Financial Times, 28 April 2016, http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/1745f3c2-0d16-11e6-b41f-0beb7e589515.html#axzz47DLzccaT; Martin Wolf, ‘Do Not Let Migration Determine Britain’s Place in Europe’, Financial Times, 29 April 2016, http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/ddb9610a-0c95-11e6-ad80-67655613c2d6.html#axzz47DLzccaT; and Anand Menon, ‘Britain’s Military Standing Would Not Suffer after Brexit’, Financial Times, 24 April 2016, http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/a6f95c18-087d-11e6-a623-b84d06a39ec2.html#axzz47DLzccaT. These contributions are noteworthy for their ambivalence on the underlying issues, although it is clear that the economists in the first article favour the Leave campaign, while Martin Wolf and Anand Menon support Remain.
16 Matthias Matthijs, ‘Britain and Europe: The End of the Affair?’, Current History, vol. 113, no. 761, March 2014, pp. 91–7.
17 Andrew Glencross, ‘Why a British Referendum on EU Membership Will Not Solve the British Question’, International Affairs, vol. 91, no. 2, March 2015, pp. 303–17.