Since everyone‘s chipping in now, and despite my own deep reservations about the utility of a referendum as a way of resolving the UK’s relationship with the EU, it is still prudent to make plans for such an eventuality: As David Cameron’s ‘tantric‘ speech looms ever closer, so the likelihood that it will offer a popular vote in some form on membership appears to increase, even if more through thoughtlessness than intent.

Into this mix, we might also add that I’ve been reading a book (for fun, mainly): Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. Kahneman writes about the way we think (with an instinctive ‘gut’ and a more rational ‘head’) and about the biases that this thinking contains.  In particular, his ideas about availability and “What you see is all there is” are potentially very helpful to us.

Firstly, let’s consider the situation. We have no final decision about a referendum, but we do have indicators pointing that way. We also know that a formal campaign will be bound by the Electoral Commission‘s rules, which will structure debate (and spending on campaigning). We can be confident that any referendum topic presented is likely to be read as ‘in/out’ by most voters and participants, even if membership is not mentioned, and that voting will be shaped by attitudes towards domestic politics before the EU qua EU (a la Second Order voting). Finally, let’s assume that my own position is one of supporting membership, even if all the points here could apply equally well to the anti- position.

Now let’s bring in some Kahneman. He tells us that people are generally lazy in their reasoning, using heuristics to take short-cuts, and rationalising on the basis of what information they are presented with. In evolutionary terms, this has generally worked well, but it is not necessarily appropriate to all situations, hence the emergence of more rational approaches alongside it. While we might like to think that people act and make decisions on a purely rational basis, that’s evidently not true, so we might better assume that people will make decisions in the easiest way possible. As Kahneman says, faced with complex decisions, we often substitute a simpler decision: thus “should the UK remain in the EU?” becomes “do I like the EU?”, since the former requires an evaluation of costs and benefits, while the later is simply affective and can draw on “what I know about the EU”.

So far, this doesn’t look too good: both pro and anti sides spend a lot of time trying to build big banks of research to justify their cases, when it might just come down to ‘chat in a pub’ type attitudes (i.e. over a pint, you will views on most things, without developing a wide-ranging evidence base to support).

But it is also important to recognise that this also opens up a set of opportunities, of which I list three.

  1. Most people have shallow preferences on the EU. It has a low salience, as compared to other issues, so we might expect that while attitudes are currently more negative than positive, that can be easily moved, as in 1975. Associating high salience issues with a pro-EU position would therefore help;
  2. In the current open field of public debate, there is scope to set agendas and develop peoples’ heuristic models. Witness the slow-drip approach of some newspapers and of some sceptic pressure groups, building an image of the EU as bureaucratic, interfering, undemocratic and wrong: none of it is killer stuff, but it has become the default mode for media reporting of European affairs. ‘Brussels’ has a bad name in large part because communication of the alternative is much more complex and journalists use shortcuts too. However, this does not mean that other heuristic models cannot be developed, built around positive values of cooperation, consensus and outputs;
  3. What you see is still all that there is, so there is much scope to put things in peoples’ way to affect their thinking. The closer this comes to a vote, the more available it will be and the more likely to affect behaviour. This might include stressing the positive associations of a choice (e.g. for pros, the access to markets and funding, or the halo effect of membership on the UK’s international standing) or the negative associations of a choice (e.g. the costs of non-membership, in economic and political terms). Even if these associations are not substantiated in fact, they will still affect people’s attitudes, as witnessed by the wilder excesses of sceptic comments.

In brief, I would suggest that if a vote does come, then it will be much more open that most people realise (this is another Kahneman point, that people tend to over-estimate the likelihood of events occurring). However, for this to come to fruition, it will require pro-EU individuals and organisations to mobilise now in order to maximise their chance of influencing people. At the moment, only sceptics seem to have grasped this and consequently are making all the running.

 

UPDATE: with a slightly different reasoning, Jon Worth makes some very similar points in his blog here: I heartily commend it to you.

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Boris Johnson tells us it’s all sorted: David Cameron is going to make his long-awaited ‘tantric’ speech on the EU ‘within weeks’ and he’s going to offer an in-out referendum.

You will recall that this speech has been kicked back several times since the summer and that Cameron himself has given nothing more than veiled suggestions of what might (or might not) be in it.

The unfortunate effect of all this is that the speech is becoming ever more important to all involved, because of the potential it holds for moving British debate forwards from its current ‘phoney war’ status. For sceptics, it will be point where the game is properly afoot, a referendum is called and they can realise their goal of withdrawal; for pro-EU elements, it will either kick a referendum into the long grass, hopefully not to be seen again, or if a vote is called then it will mobilise the currently passive pro-EU constituency to follow in Tony Blair‘s wake in speaking out.

The reason for the delay is also pretty obvious: Cameron doesn’t know (or can’t decide) what to say. As Bagehot noted in The Economist recently, Cameron is hemmed in on one side by his increasingly radical backbenchers and on the other by the clear recognition that moving out of the EU will only marginalise the UK more.

In brief, there would appear to be a number of options of what he could say:

  • Offer an in-out vote this parliament. This is the sceptic maximalist option and very unlikely, given the pressure on parliament’s time, the long list of other (economic) priorities, the likely sundering of the coalition and the current sets of EU negotiations where the UK is already struggling to be heard;
  • Offer in-out next parliament. Less unlikely, since it offers the possibility of bouncing other parties into making the same commitment and (if we believe the polls) making it Labour’s ‘fault’ for falling out of the EU. However, it remains unlikely precisely because it would make it much more likely to tie politicians’ hands on future policy and Cameron has repeatedly stated that he doesn’t want to exit (in line with Labour and the Lib Dems);
  • Offer a consultative vote sometime to give a mandate to renegotiate membership. This side-steps exit (at least initially) and potentially gives HMG a strong hand to ‘go to Brussels’ to secure concessions. However, the mood across the EU is not a positive one, especially given the big push on EMU reforms, and it’s not hard to see ‘renegotiations’ turning out much like 1974, i.e. nothing of substance. It would also then presumably lead to a second vote on whether to accept the new terms, bringing exit back on the table;
  • Offer no vote, but instead set out his policy of critical engagement, defending British interests, etc. Also unlikely, mainly because it would cause uproar in his party and severely dent his ability to lead them. At best, this would end up just kicking the issue down the road a short distance, only for it to return  with heightened calls for its resolution.

Ultimately, there are no good options left for Cameron. His actions over the parliament (and before) have gradually exposed the flaws in his EU policy: ‘let’s not talk about it’ has been taken by backbenchers to mean that Cameron is with them on leaving the EU, when it actually just means ‘let’s not keep scaring voters that we’ve got nothing else to discuss.’

As Christmas approaches, Cameron is left in an invidious position of his own making. Whatever he does, it will have lasting repercussions.

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A brief one this week, but just a linguistic observation.

David Cameron talks about ‘using the veto‘ a lot these days (and it will be said a lot more in the days to come). However, it’s never clear what this ‘veto’ is.

Think back to last Christmas and the Fiscal Compact negotiations, where Cameron ‘used the veto’, in the sense of refusing to agree to a treaty amendment: this didn’t stop anything, just pushed it to one side and confirmed people’s suspicions about the UK.

Likewise, the Financial Framework negotiations require unanimity, so a ‘veto’ is a block. However, the result of any impasse is the continuation of the existing budget, which would not meet British demands. So again, no win.

In practice, a ‘veto’ is neither a nuclear bomb, that stops everything, nor a constructive contribution. It’s an obstacle and if any organisation has learnt how to deal with obstacles, then it’s the EU, which has working through more crises than most.

Quite when British politicians will learn that you get your voice heard and acted upon in the Union by working constructively and with the flow – a lesson that British bureaucrats learnt a long time ago – I don’t know. But this week doesn’t make me too confident about it happening soon.

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William Hague gave a rare speech on the EU this week. Entitled “Europe at a crossroads: what kind of Europe do we want?”, he sought to map out some of the major challenges the EU faces, having sung the praises of the Single Market.

These he listed as: differentiated integration; democratic legitimacy; and division of competences. Obviously, these overlap and are in turn mediated through particular projects. Hague’s representation of the British stance on the Eurozone crisis highlighted the very difficult position of being an interested by-stander: “Clearly the Eurozone’s current structures are not working. We respect the democratic decision of the countries of the Eurozone to preserve it.  That will require changes. We know the options. It is not for Britain to tell you what the exact remedy should be.” It’s akin to the old Harry Enfield sketch of the “only me!” man: he might be right to point out problems, but it’s not the best way to build lasting relationships.

Hague noted deep public disillusionment with the EU and feeling that it was a one-way ratchet of centralisation: “If we cannot show that decision-making can flow back to national parliaments then the system will become democratically unsustainable.” This was all seized on by some media as a veiled threat to the EU of withdrawal, but that is a hopeful, rather than an accurate reading. Certainly, it seems somewhat willful on Hague’s part, given the Lisbon provisions on national parliaments.

My perspective is that this was a speech about laying down markers, without constraining action. Hague mentioned Single Market reform, the budget negotiations, the JHA opt-out (presented here as “re-balancing”), all to make the point that these areas can be conceptualised in a more pro-EU way, as helping the Union to resolve those basic challenges.  Even the Review of Competences was presented as a means to improving European governance, rather than a prelude to renegotiation or withdrawal.

More notably, the speech didn’t set out a major new agenda or policy: it was a placeholder. The “embracing of diversity” that ran through the speech has been a staple of Foreign Secretaries’ contributions for decades now. Instead, it highlights the primacy of internal Conservative party politics in guiding debate. Just as the ECHR ruling on votes for prisoners is showing, any constructive engagement is shouted down by backbenchers, while the Cabinet struggles to find a modus vivendi.

It’s hard to see how this can change within the current parliament: sadly, the rest of the EU might not be on the same schedule.

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I’ve just contributed to LSE’s EUROPP blog on the way David Cameron has managed his party over the EU. Here’s the intro:

Much as it did for his predecessors in the 1980s and 1990s, the “Europe Problem” has caused headaches for UK Prime Minister, David Cameron. While some have commented that Cameron has been more flexible on these issues than some of his predecessors, Simon Usherwood disagrees. He argues that David Cameron, just like John Major before him, has been unwilling to address the fundamental sources of the Conservative Party’s split over Europe.

Full text here.

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In recent weeks I’ve been working on a new edition of  ‘The European Union: A Very Short Introduction’ (OUP, all good bookshops, etc…), since one of two things have happened since the 2007 edition came out.

The exercise has been a good one for me, asking me to step back from the more parochial concerns of my various research interests and consider the bigger picture of European integration.

Indeed, it has forced me to ask how I understand and frame the current situation, which looks decidedly poor. An economic and financial crisis that has run almost uninterrupted since the previous edition came out; the constitutionalisation project laid out at Laekendashed on the reefs of public opinion and elite non-engagement; a stalling of the EU’s role as a global leader in environmental protection and trade liberalisation; even a questioning of fundamental aspects of the EU, such as free movement. All of these can be taken as emblematic of the Union’s downfall and collapse. Certainly, to read of the constant disagreements about such key actions as supporting failing Eurozone economies and to witness civil unrest on the streets of more than one capital city makes it hard to be optimistic.

And yet, I have found myself being just that. The basic logic of integration, of working together to find common solutions to common problems, and of providing mutual support in a globalising world, still holds true.

This is not to say it’s pretty or cost-free, but rather that the underlying necessity remains and ultimately I have confidence that this will work its way through. I recall that the Union has had a history littered with failures: the European Defence Community; the Empty-Chair crisis; British renegotiation of the treaty and then the budget; ERM’s collapse; the Constitutional Treaty (indeed, all treaties since Maastricht). This should suggest that there is a capacity to find solutions in the longer-term, even if it has made some rather blase about stumbling into a new crisis.

One could argue that ‘this time it’s different’, given the scale and scope of the problems and of the potential solutions and one would have to concede this to some extent: even what has been agreed so far, from the SixPack to the EFSF and ESM (opening its doors this week) to the Fiscal Compact – all will have far-reaching impacts on the lives of millions, both inside and outside the Eurozone. But this should not mean that no solution is possible. If we look around, we might find a number of more positive signs.

Firstly, we see an emerging debate about strengthen economic and fiscal union, which has the potential to resolve some of the fundamental challenges posed to the Eurozone. Secondly, we see that solidarity between member states does remain: Merkel’s visit to Athens was intended to support, not undermine, the Greek government (albeit with limited success). Thirdly, we see how David Cameron has evaded a definitive commitment to a British referendum, suggesting an understanding of the potentially very deep costs that could incur.

So as I have turned to the book’s conclusions, I have largely retained their positive tone, for I do genuinely feel both that solutions are possible and that those solutions will involve an European Union that continues to play a significant role in our lives.

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There is an embarrassment of riches that could be discussed this week, even under this heading: from ACTA to referenda, the issue of the EU seems to be gaining media profile, if not public interest.

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Dear Chancellor Merkel,

 

I am writing to ask you to rethink your insistence upon extreme austerity as the cure for the Euro-zone’s economic problems. If you do not change your mind, and if you do not work to make such a shift politically possible in your country, you risk deepening the crisis to such an extent that it will engulf the global economy.

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Perhaps it’s been the two weeks of unrelenting rain here, but it’s been hard to be too optimistic about the EU of late.  David Cameron’s remarks at the weekend about being less than halfway through the Eurozone crisis have only been reinforced by the poor economic figures, tetchy ECOFIN meetings, potentially deeply problematic elections in France and Greece, not to mention the fall of another government (this time in Romania).

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David Cameron formally announced last week that he will recruit a Special (woman) Adviser to carry out a gender impact assessment of Government policy. This announcement is on the back of reports in the press at the end of 2011 that he was seeking a woman’s perspective on key Government policies. So, is this a sign that the Government has taken on board the criticisms put forward by the Women’s Budget Group and the Fawcett Society over the last two years about the impact of the emergency budget and cuts?

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