Miguel Nunes Silva 2.12pm
David Cameron’s much awaited speech on Europe was met with profound disappointment on the side of those who currently push for greater integration in the European Union.
By making a potential referendum on British membership conditional on a Conservative party re-election, Mr Cameron was criticised of pandering to populism.
Allowing structural state policy to be determined by the masses could be said to be populism of the most irresponsible kind. Foreign policy, like defence policy, is a strategic domain of public governance. If no one asks the British people their opinion before Britain goes to war, it would only stand to reason that they are not inquired about UK membership in an international organisation. David Cameron deserves criticism on the referendum conditionality proposed but double the amount on the decision to hold the referendum to begin with.
That said, his continental detractors are a breed of their own.
To call the referendum on European Union membership a foreign policy decision is a mere assumption, because not everyone agrees that EU member-states are/should be sovereign. Most experts on EU politics only agree on one definition of its institutions: that they are a “UPO,” an unidentified political object – euphemism for agreeing to disagree.
Whereas some see the European Union as a mere technical international institution, others believe it to be a supranational entity that will eventually supersede the nation state as the sovereign political representative of the European peoples. One such step was the creation of the European Parliament, whose members are elected by direct suffrage.
Opinions vary according to the nature of the nationhood in question. Germans, Belgians and Italians, due to their short history as independent nations, their traumatic experience with nationalism and them being accustomed to working within a federal system, tend to harbour more federalist feelings. French, Portuguese or Poles, owing to an ancient nationhood, a proud export of such national culture to other peoples and a fundamentally unitary state system, are for the most part more zealous of Gaullist nation state pluralism and sovereignty.
Overall, however, continentals are less eurosceptic than the British and it was no surprise to learn of negative feedback in Europe: the French foreign minister Laurent Fabius called the referendum “dangerous” and criticised the possibility of a European Union “à la carte”. In a poorly chosen allegory, he also mentioned that a football team cannot decide instead to play rugby.
But it was the German socialist Martin Schultz, recently elected president of the European Parliament, who went the farthest in echoing the categorisation of the speech as “dangerous” and painting the announced referendum as the product of a “sorcerer’s apprentice” manipulating forces that he does not understand.
Schultz’s own Austrian parliamentary leader described the speech as “tragicomic”. Belgian Guy Verhofstadt and Franco-German Daniel Cohn-Bendit, leaders of the progressive liberals and Green parties respectively, characterised the speech as dishonest, “ignorant” and the referendum as “hokey-cokey.”
Such attitudes are despicable, disrespectful and unstatesman like. Mr Cameron may be accused of hurting the British national interest but he is at least the legitimate leader of the United Kingdom. The reactions of those who criticize him, on the other hand, are hypocritical and contradictory. These are, after all, those who advocate the European Union as more than a technical international organisation and cannot therefore be perceived as a mere instrument of foreign policy.
If that is so, and what happens in Europe is not “international” but actually “domestic,” why then not allow a referendum? Is that not the very logic behind the creation of a European Parliament, an institution that is already superfluously parallel to the national parliaments, in much the same way that the referendum would be superfluously parallel to a governmental decision to ratify the Lisbon Treaty?
One cannot have it both ways. Either Europe is a proto-state or it is an international organisation. The legitimacy that these politicians might possess to criticise Mr Cameron rests on the very principle involved in the scheduling of the referendum: that European Union member-states are sub-national entities in relation to the union and that any European politician is entitled to criticise a head of government without interfering in sovereign internal affairs, since they do so horizontally.
However, if the referendum is truly a foreign policy matter and a popular vote is purposeless, then not only is it not the place of functionaries of an international institution to interfere in the domestic affairs of a sovereign nation; David Cameron now has the legitimacy to tell them, in turn, how to do their jobs.
The “Europe à la carte” rather seems to be a product of European federalism: the only pick-and-choosing happening at the moment pertains to Europe’s federalists who invoke one logic or another, according to how it suits their own political interests. It was not after all the British footballers who decided to play rugby but rather some of the other players who decided to go cycling instead and self awarded themselves a yellow shirt…
After decades of accusations of democratically deficient integration, if the federalists seriously wish to avoid the image of promoters of a top-down federalisation by stealth, they would do well to not enter into the paradox of calling for a Europe of the peoples without existential referendums and most of all would do well not to call thirty million of their ‘fellow citizens’ “hokey cokey”.
Miguel Nunes Silva is an analyst for the geostrategy consultancy Wikistrat and has been published in a number of foreign policy media. He holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of Lisbon and a Master’s in European Studies from the College of Europe.