David Cameron and Centrifugal Crises

British Prime Minister David Cameron made waves in late January when he announced plans to hold a referendum on the U.K.’s continued membership in the European Union. Should the Conservatives win elections in 2015, Cameron promised a simple “in or out” referendum on E.U. membership by 2017.  The move seems to have roots in domestic politics. Cameron faces considerable pressure from the Eurosceptic wing of his own party as well as a challenge from the UK Independence Party, which has been surging along the Conservatives’ political flank.

This all raises the prospect that, absent Conservative defeat or a Europhilic turn on the part of the British public, one of the core members (and key funders) of the E.U. could make an ungraceful exit in the coming years. In the long term, this could prove a greater threat to the viability of the European project than the economic woes of more peripheral members like Greece and Spain.

Labour leader Ed Miliband sharply criticized the proposal and hardened his own opposition to such a step (though support from some of his backbenchers may be shaky). Nick Clegg, whose Liberal Democrats are members of the Conservative governing coalition, dissented sharply as well. Heads of state in Europe did not react warmly to the news, nor to the strong-arm tactics it represents. Former Prime Minister Tony Blair said Cameron’s brinksmanship could backfire: “It reminds me a bit of the Mel Brooks comedy Blazing Saddles where the sheriff says at one point as he holds a gun to his own head: ‘If you don’t do what I want I’ll blow my brains out.’ You want to watch out that one of the 26 [other EU member states] doesn’t just say: ‘OK, go ahead.’”

Extra points for the Mel Brooks reference, and for having the good sense not to repeat the quote verbatim.

Cameron’s move seems risky, but makes sense in light of both domestic and international factors. In addition to shoring up cracks in his governing coalition, his announcement seems designed to increase his leverage in upcoming negotiations over the E.U. budget. Cameron himself is not a hard Eurosceptic, but his support for a pro-Europe vote in any future referendum has now been made implicitly contingent on his receiving an acceptable offer from his counterparts on the continent. By publicly committing to a referendum, Cameron presents Paris, Berlin and Brussels with the choice of either buying British support for a “yes” vote or hoping that the Conservatives lose the next election. How palatable they’ll find either option remains an open question.

That being said, Brian Taylor points out that the Tories may be undermining their position on the question of Scottish sovereignty:

They have said that the [Scottish National Party] cannot guarantee Scottish membership of the EU, post independence.

The Nationalists have, of course, contested that vigorously but, at the very least, the issue gained some traction.

Now what do the Tories say on this topic?

Reject the SNP, stick with the UK – and we will offer you the prospect that a vote across the whole of these islands may take you out of the EU, perhaps in contradistinction to opinion in Scotland.

In a bid to reassert the economic and political autonomy of Britain, then, the Tories could end up actually weakening the British state.

Whatever the outcome, this episode highlights the contradictory and self-undermining nature of elite responses to the ongoing economic crisis in Europe. Years of austerity, some of it imposed at the encouragement or insistence of Brussels, have made the financial burdens of European integration heavier for the continent’s economic core. At the same time they have constricted recovery and led to anemic growth, high unemployment, and prolonged economic misery.

It would be naive to say that say that such conditions “cause” nationalist or parochial backlash, but the economic crisis does seem to be having centrifugal effects on multiple fronts.

On the one hand, it puts sustained pressure on the political and economic bargains that make the E.U. viable. Though not a member of the Eurozone, Britain is a major net donor to the E.U. (see chart from Le Monde, below) and the third largest economy in Europe. Its departure would represent a major shock to the institution.

EU Contributions; Le Monde

On the other hand, the crisis has intensified sub-national fissures in a number of member states. Separatist and nationalist movements in Scotland, Catalonia and Flanders have all seen their fortunes improve since the onset of the crisis. They present an interesting twist on what Frederick Solt calls “new-nations” theories of economic distress and nationalism (see Brown, Hechter and Brass). In their simplest forms, such theories predict sub-national mobilization by groups that are materially deprived relative to society at large. Relative deprivation is key.  Here, though, nationalist grievances have coalesced around a different narrative. Separatist elites have made hay over the uneven financial burdens imposed by ‘society at large’ on local prosperity. As movements, they seek to protect the fruits of relative affluence rather than overcome relative deprivation.

Recent developments in the U.K. suggest how these super-national and sub-national crises of legitimacy could become mutually reinforcing. The specter of an E.U. exit undermines confidence in the national state’s position as a point of access to European markets and institutions. This in turn raises the stakes of regional separatist politics by sharpening the distinction between national and European alignment.

Cameron may well be able to balance these competing interests for the moment. Acute though the current crisis may be, the institutional roots of both the E.U. and the United Kingdom run deep, and continue to reflect considerable elite and popular consensus. That said, centrifugal pressures across the region seem unlikely to abate until Europe can return to robust and broadly shared growth, something which the broader policies of recent years have done much to forestall.

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