The United Kingdom has voted
Pollsters should be ashamed. Never before their predictions were so far from reality. The British electoral system is complicated. The more parties are competing, the more the „first-past-the-post“ system distorts the will of the voters. UKIP may be an unsavoury party, but Nigel Farage is right to be upset that his party having the vote of 13% of the voters just gets 1 seat in the House of Commons, while the Scottish Nationlists with less than half that vote get 56 seats, even the LibDems had more votes than the SNP getting just 8 seats. With just 37% of the votes the Conservative Party gets an absolute majority, and even Labour gets 36% of the seats with just 31% of the votes. To defend such an electoral system one must be convinced that the more than 50% of voters who voted for loosing candidates deserve a total loss. Such an electoral systems looks more like a horse-bet than a democratic vote.
However, David Cameron is the clear winner and can govern with the Conservative party and without any coalition partner. His economic balance may have been decisive, even if not all is gold what glitters. Ed Miliband did not get his own agenda through to the voters, but concentrated on the threat of Tory social cuts and the privatisation of the NHS. And Labour completely lost Scotland. The Conservatives successfully frightened English voters by the perspective of a Labour government depending on Scottish nationalists. The UK has never been so divided since the Union act between England and Scotland. Some remind the time in the beginning of the 20th century when Home Rule for Ireland was rejected and so the way to Irish independence became inevitable. Although the Scottish referendum in 2014 came out in favour of keeping the Union, and more devolution is announced by the new Prime Minister, the risk of leaving the EU may trigger another referendum in Scotland this time with independence winning.
The old and new Prime Minister will now fulfil his promise to renegotiate the status of Britain in the EU and then put the result to an in/out referendum not later than 2017. Last polls show that at the moment a majority may be in favour of Britain remaining in the EU (but who believes pollsters any more ?). But nobody can predict how the picture will change if Cameron comes back with meagre results from Brussels (he is good in getting meagre results there) and if the tabloids fire with all guns against Europe, all this in an emotionally heated atmosphere. BREXIT is not a far reached hypothesis, it is a real possibility and should be taken for serious.
At a time when Greece is straining solidarity to a break, when Russia is sabre-rattling at our Eastern borders, when the Middle East is burning, when the stream of refugees on the Mediterranean becomes a flood, when core member states like France and Italy did not yet find a convincing way to more growth, at such a time BREXIT may be a detonator for the EU as a whole. The childish debate who would suffer more, Britain or the rest of Europe is useless. Both would loose a lot and win nothing.
By the way, Conservatives and UKIP together got more than 50% of the votes. If this would be a signal to Europe it would be fatal. But Europe was not a priority in the electoral campaign. This was not a vote for or against the European Union. It was about the economy, taxes, housing, jobs, budget and the NHS. It was also about fears on immigration – and here Europe is an issue. UKIP and some Conservatives played with these fears. UKIP even concentrated their campaign more against immigration than against Europe. Official numbers show that Europeans from other EU countries contribute much more to the British social budget than they get out of it. But rumours of Romanian grand families making booty from the British Social care or Polish workers taking away British jobs went around and even Conservative politicians shamelessly used this to question the liberty of movement inside the EU.
As long as some European – and also national – courts do not creatively change positive law by a very wide legal interpretation – even today it is not easy for any European citizen to abuse the social system of another member state. However Cameron will claim from his colleagues and the Commission that this must be absolutely clarified. For that he may find allies in other member states, and also in some German Federal States.
The European Courts – as well as national courts – have very creatively used their power to interpret the European law beyond the will of the lawmakers. The judiciary must be independent – but it has made itself independent even from the laws made by the legislative power. Especially in Great Britain, a country with a strong Parliamentary tradition – this has raised protests. This is also true for the European Court of Human Rights, which has nothing to do with the EU, but is an institution of the Council of Europe in Strasburg. This court also intervened deeply into topics felt going to the root of the sovereignty of the British Parliament.
The European Commission has extended the interpretation of primary law so far that a whole compound of secondary law came into existence, that in the view of Britain lacks democratic legitimacy. So competition laws were used to intervene into structures of public and private companies in a way that has nothing to do with the goal of fostering competition. From the German viewpoint the principle of subsidiarity has often been violated, a principle that shall guarantee that European rules are only developed if regional or national rules cannot better reach the purpose. Prime Minister Cameron will ask for better safeguards against such extensive use of competences – and also here he will find allies in other member states.
There is a lot of potential to raise the efficiency of the European institutions. A stricter budget control would be beneficiary for Brussels, some Regional Funds are wasted for white elephants, the Brits do not see why they should save the constituencies of some French MPs in rural areas against angry farmers who became accustomed to permanent subsidies. A commission with 28 Commissioners is a behemot and should be cut to 14, and the circus trail of the European Parliament going from Brussels to Strasburg and back is not really efficient. On budgetary discipline and raising efficiency Chancellor Merkel will certainly sympathize with David Cameron.
Cameron does not like the formula of the „ever closer union“ (signed by Britain at its accession), meaning that Europe is in a process of ongoing further integration. The Prime Minister seems to believe that the final status of the Union is already reached and that it is rather time to think about some re-nationalisations. The goal of an „ever closer union“ has always been a more philosophical issue, however it was the rule that what once was part of integration could never be rolled back into national competence. In the EEC of the six founding members this formula was emphatically used to declare that something like a state was envisaged to be the finality of the EEC. But even then this was not a real consensus. The rejection of the European Defense Union by the French National Assembly in 1954 (then leading to Germany being invited to be a member of NATO) showed that there was no idea of abandoning the national states at least in France.
Today in a union of 28 countries the idea of a European Superstate is a phantom only used to frighten children or British voters, but not a real perspective. However if the principle „never reverse the acquis of integration“ is given up this would be a severe blow to the union. If everybody could ask for his hobby topic to have „a little less“ integration, then integration may stop at all. The „ever closer union“ will be defended especially by the smaller member states who fear less integration leads to an intergovernmental directorate of big member states. The only possible outcome could be that in one or two cases the principle of subsidiarity would be more consequently observed and more decentralization is accomplished. Cameron will have to be extremely careful in this minefield.
There is no way to keep the single market functioning and at the same time let member states make their own rules on important topics. The single market guarantees a level playing field for all European companies. That is fundamental for the single market. If Cameron wants special treatment for the City of London and Germany follows up with asking for special treatment of the German Automobile industry, then forget about the single market.
For eurosceptics in the Conservative Party the working time directive was a like a red rag to a bull. They would have preferred to totally withdraw from the social chapter. But it was exactly the lack of „more social Europe“ that made some French socialists around Laurant Fabius vote against the failed Constitution Project. The real importance of the directive in the UK is minimal compared to the disproportionate and blown up debate of it inside eurosceptic Tory circles. If Cameron would successfully attack this social chapter he should be aware that in France one could also have a referendum then against the „AngloSaxon anti-social positions“. Should we really try out a war of referenda as a form of negotiating European issues ?
The crisis in some Euro-countries made a closer economic and financial union necessary, a union that had been postponed when the Euro was introduced. The British government under David Cameron shared the view that the Euro cannot survive without closer cooperation in economic, financial and budget affairs. Allegedly he rejected the stability pact only because he thought he could get more concessions for the City of London, concessions that – as I was told – the City did not even ask for and held not important enough to blow up a European Council for it. Cameron isolated himself – and two days later enjoyed the applause he got from antieuropeans for his strong posture. If he wants to negotiate in that style he will not come very far. Even traditional friends of the United Kongdom are fed up with that arrogance.
But David Cameron has a point which must be taken for serious: before each Council of the ministers of finance of the EU there is a meeting of the Eurozone ministers. In the future there will also be debates on economic and financial matters that concern all of the union. There is a theoretical danger – although it never happened up to now – that the Euro-ministers with the qualified overall majority make the important decisions inside their caucus and leave it to the other member states just to nod to what was already decided. In my view the solution could be to give non-Eurozone countries a seat but not a vote in the Eurozone meetings – the same could be done for Schengen-meetings. This could also include the European Economic zone member states, e.g. Norway and Switzerland. Exceptions must be made in the rare cases of talking about monetary operations with a high speculative potential like a devaluation.
It would be good for the EU to become more flexible and do more of the enhanced cooperation foreseen under article 20 of the Lisbon Treaty. Different velocities and timetables, or different geometries or rulings are already used to adapt for special necessities. But that does not mean any Europe à la carte – because this would destroy the level playing field of the single market first and the union later.
Cameron should be aware that for each concession he will have to pay a price. Just staying inside the union will not be enough. He must not only say what he wants, he must also say what he has on offer. It could be helpful if he promises no more blackmailing on questions that concern only issues where Britain does not participate, and calling back the referendum lock in Britain – otherwise needing a British referendum on each Treaty change would make a BREXIT-debate a permanent institutional part of the EU. There are two things that could crash his negotiation from the beginning: any attempt to attack the acquis as a whole, and any attempt to get advantages for Britain that are not reforms for all Europeans and all of Europe as well. If he tries that then BREXIT becomes the lesser evil (still an evil), because the risk to weaken the union will be preferred to the risk of destroying the union.
Many British Conservatives dare to put questions on the EU in the public, that in other members states are only asked in private. This is good for Europe, because bad feelings only increase if you do not speak out on them having an open debate. But the very ideological europhobes in the Tory party – may be 20-30% of the MPs – want to leave the EU under all circumstances and will not be content with beautiful looking but minor concessions to David Cameron. And the tabloids like the „Daily Mail“ or the „Sun“ will continue to fight for BREXIT. Cameron will have to separate himself from those in his party who John Major once characterized as „Tory in their head, but UKIP in their heart“. He may need to risk a split in his party if he wants to be successful. Otherwise he will go into history as an hasardeur who severyly damaged Europe and led the United Kingdom into desaster.