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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I have had the opportunity to research UKIP for many years now, having firstly worked on the party in the mid-1990s.

In that time, I have witnessed its rise from a small group of dedicated campaigners, working solely on the issue of  getting the UK out of the EU, through its electoral break-through in the European Parliament elections in 1999, into its current phase of increased media profile and talk becoming a consolidated part of the party political system. The headlines of recent weeks (“UKIP ‘are third force in British politics’“, “Ukip deserves to ‘be taken seriously‘”) would seem to point towards that being so.

However, my long memory was stirred by this talk: we have been here before. Talk of a sea-change was common in 2004, following UKIP’s success in coming second (with help from Kilroy-Silk) in the EP elections. Thus the Mail said that “the spectacular success of UKIP in knocking the Lib Dems into fourth place, leaving Labour and the Tories with less than 50 per cent of the vote between them, has (for now at least) rewritten the electoral map. We are witnessing a great surge of protest from a public that has had enough.”  The Daily Star wrote about UKIP as “a major political force”, with (then campaign leader) Nigel Farage “boasting” that “UKIP is now unstoppable.”

A quick peek at the Google Trends data for searches on ”UKIP” highlights the reality: within months, Kilroy-Silk had been ejected from the party, which entered into a period of in-fighting, ultimately resulting in a dispiriting performance in the 2005 general election. With the exceptions of the elections in 2009 (EP) and 2010 (UK), UKIP has not secured a structural position in either the media or party politics.

Even the recent media interest does not (yet) represent a change to this, given that much of it can be associated with a concentration of specific events (the PCC elections, the Rotherham fostering story and the three November by-elections). Indeed, as the second graph shows, there has already been a significant down-turn in searches on the party from the initial spike in late November.

In short, I would return to the hypothesis I set out some years ago on the tensions that UKIP has to confront. On the one hand has been successful in exploting its initial niche as an (EU) protest party. On the other, it now suffers from a number of internal difficulties in moving beyond this niche.

Firstly, it lacks an ideological basis. The party is held together by little more than its dislike of the EU. A read of the 2010 manifesto reveals a collection of populist measures, only made possible by assumed (huge) savings from leaving the EU. As Farage himself is often heard to say, UKIP is not just the Tories with a ‘proper’ European policy, but a much broader church. This makes it much harder to generate a coherent and comprehensive programme of government.

Secondly, it lacks depth of resources. Both money and personnel are in short supply for the party. Even with the recent influx of members in recent weeks, membership is roughly 20,000, or roughly 30 per Commons constituency (thanks to Tim Bale for that observation), hardly enough to support either an extensive campaigning strategy (even if it could be afforded): the Green’s 2010 strategy of pouring everything into one constituency isn’t viable. Likewise, the party leadership has been dominated by the considerable figure of Farage (it’s hard to see who else would warrant a piece of the kind the BBC produced this week); only Kilroy-Silk make a similar impact and that did not end well.

Indeed, this points to the third weakness. With its very democratic structure of governance, it is open to individuals seeking to maximise their power and influence. This was discussed by Adebi and Lundberg in a very useful analysis: essentially, the number of posts exceeds the number of moderate (in terms of party policy) individuals, making it easy for those with more radical agendas to gain influence. UKIP has had three major ruptures over personnel and policy since its foundation in 1993, each of which nearly killed it off: even today, the party suffers from defections (e.g. Nikki Sinclaire) by senior figures.

The media like a good headline, and Farage undoubtedly provides good copy, but to present UKIP as the ‘third party’ is a vast over-extrapolation, both of the party and of voters. Just as 2004 didn’t translate into 2005, and 20090 didn’t translate in 2010, so I would expect UKIP’s performance in the 2015 general election to remain a pale imitation of their 2014 European elections performance, even if the latter does leave UKIP as the best represented party in the EP.

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I’ve just posted a new piece on “Building a new Europe: Engaging with British euroscepticism” for the European Council of Foreign Affairs, as part of their “EU at the crossroads” project.

In it, I conclude that “The longevity of British euroscepticism – in all its forms – can be seen in one of two ways.  Either the British are ‘different’ and reconciliation is impossible, or we have just not found the right way to bridge the gap.  The very existence of the EU, built as it on the Franco-German rapprochement, shows the fallacy of the first option.  Therefore, euroscepticism should act as a spur to making the Union into an effective and legitimate mechanism for governance.  That will require a change, not only in institutions, but also in attitudes. ”

Full text here.

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Yesterday, I chaired a very interesting and engaging discussion at Europe House on the subject of “Democracy listens to dissent: what has euroscepticism done for the EU?” I was joined by Tom Moriaty of Occupy London and Gawain Towler, UKIP and EFD spokesman, who both talked about their group’s perspectives and their understanding of the democratic process in general and the EU in particular.

My key interest in the discussion was about opening up new debates around the integration process that try to bring in those voices that are usually excluded: as one attendee noted afterwards, these aren’t voices you normally get to hear. As much as the EU is a broad church (incidentally, a term both Tom and Gawain used to describe their groups too), it is not completely consensual, nor does it move, convoy- style, at the speed of the slowest boat. While that might be understandable, it is not sustainable, so the effort to identify new common ground is valuable for everyone.

As befits someone who has avoided grand theory wherever possible, I think I understand Hegel’s dialectic. Thus, the EU is the thesis and eurosceptical thought is the anti-thesis: only by bringing those together can we achieve a new synthesis that reconciles the two positions and takes us into a new phase of political action [doubtless, a colleague will come along shortly to correct me on this]. As much as it fits with Hegel, it strikes me as common sense that in the face of persistent and embedded euroscepticism the EU needs to try something different.

Two main ideas struck me from the debate.

Firstly, the degree of agreement between the two speakers, despite the very different nature of their groups and their activities. Both agreed on the need for debate and dissent within democratic systems, which in turn requires a level of political knowledge and engagement by individuals: this is indeed a key part of Parliament Week, under whose aegis the event was run. They also agreed that the deregulation of the financial sector was a vital part in understanding the economic crisis and, as a result, requires our attention, both because it compromises our economic well-being and because it has driven an increase in intolerant political and social behaviour (e.g. racism, sexism, etc.).

Secondly, the debate highlighted an aspect of euroscepticism that is often overlooked, namely that sometimes the EU is not the problem itself, but rather a place where problems play out. Thus Tom was very pragmatic about the EU, noting both that it had facilitated the contagion of the financial crisis, but also that the UK would logically work closely with its major economic partners to find solutions. Similarly, Gawain observed that one of the tensions in the EU (especially in the Parliament) is the clash of national political cultures that have very different fundamental conceptions of the role of politicians and political institutions.

Ultimately, I found it heartening that such a thoughtful and constructive debate could take place: the swivel-eyed monsters of many peoples’ prejudice weren’t there and everyone who spoke displayed a level of understanding that has too often been missing in media debates. I can’t pretend that we solved anything, but I hope we have demonstrated the concept of how we might advance towards new understandings.

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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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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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One of the wonderful things about getting older is that you start to see how things come around again. As a ‘fresh-faced’ (not really) postgrad, I watched as the main British parties found themselves promising a referendum on membership of the single currency. Today (even less fresh-faced), I’m watching them do something similar on EU membership more generally.

In both cases the dynamics are the same. Pressure builds for a vote, either from internal factions (Tory backbenchers now) or external groups (Referendum party, UKIP), leading one party to make the offer of a vote, to try and out-manoeuver the others, leading to the others making the same offer, to close down the issue and the influence of the initial pressure. End result – a general commitment to a vote, but with no actual desire for a debate.

This strikes me as particularly counter-productive. I can agree with many sceptics who say that there has not been a proper debate about membership, either in the run-up to the 1973 accession, or in the 1975 referendum campaign, or since. Largely, that has been because no one (in power) felt it was particularly necessary, initially because it was seen as a technical exercise, later because it would just expose the tensions within all major political parties on the issue. More recently, the lack of public interest in the issue has meant that there’s not even a clear gain to be made by having the discussion, so relatively small numbers of activists hold disproportionate amounts of influence.

Consider 2004, when Blair changing policy and offered a referendum on the Constitutional Treaty. No one really believed him at the time when he said it was a wonderful opportunity to ‘make the generational debate’, and nothing since supports that view either: it was a product of Tory policy, decisions in other member states and a need to kill the issue in the run-up to the EP elections that year. In brief, people didn’t come into it.

A referendum appears to be a good idea, because it makes a decision. Supporters of a vote can appeal to democratic values in support, which trumps  the more prosaic matters of economy or political strategy. A referendum also suggests a debate on merits and costs.

but to my mind, a referendum is not a solution, but rather a means to one. How can we reasonably boil down all of the many discussions we have had, and are could have, about the EU into a simple ‘yes/no’ question? Anything other than an ‘in/out’ question will just be treated as if it were that question, and that question doesn’t tell us what we do with either outcome (e.g. ‘yes, but this sort of Union’, ‘no, but we’d like to have access to markets’, etc.).  The only other sort of question that could be asked would be to give the government of the day a mandate to renegotiate membership (the 1975 process in reverse), but then we’d have to have another vote to decide on the outcome.

Moreover, and more consequentially, a referendum will not produce a lasting debate. 1975 didn’t do that. Nor did the commitments to euro membership or the Constitutional Treaty.

If we want to work out what we want, in an informed and considered way, then we have to talk about it in a more structured and structural way. That means politicians expressing their views, debating with each other and with other actors. It means civil society groups engaging with policy-makers and -implementers. It means a programme of meaningful education about what the EU is and does, based on even-handed materials. It means a media that will devote time and space to this.

That’s a big programme of action and one that we cannot achieve very easily. However, this shouldn’t stop us trying. Otherwise, we risk locking ourselves into a process that produces outcomes that no one really wants.

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Radosław Sikorski, Polish Foreign Minister, is rapidly gaining a reputation across Europe as a man who speaks his mind. Whether he’s telling the Germans that he worries about their inaction on the eurozone crisis, or the British that they suffer from ‘false consciousness’ about EU membership, he appears unafraid to say the things that others think.

This is to be applauded, both generally and specifically. Generally, we have come to associate politicians with flatterers, telling us what they think we want to hear, playing the percentages, rather than giving us a realistic judgement on what is possible and/or desirable. Specifically, after five years of a financial crisis characterised as much by half-hearted interventions as anything else, it is refreshing to have someone in a position of responsibility to tell it like it is.

The Oxford-educated Mr Sikorski would of course recognise the classical allusion of the title, the owl of knowledge that flies at dusk. Perhaps his lucidity can be read as a belated understanding of the situation that is reaching a conclusion, even if neither the situation nor the conclusion are entirely clear yet.

Or perhaps not. One of the seeming constants of the European integration process has been the general unhappiness that surrounds interventions by one country’s politicians in the affairs of another: no one likes being told what to do. The only exception that springs to mind is the current intervention by the EU in Bulgarian and Romanian politics, and even then that’s hardly uncontested. At best, such intervention is politely received and then ignored; at worst, it becomes ‘meddling’ or ‘manipulating.’

With that in mind, the minister has done well, probably because his style is not hectoring but disappointed and his analysis is fair and even-handed.

However, there still lingers a doubt in my mind. His speeches put me in mind of a pre-war doctor, telling his patient with a psychological condition to ‘pull yourself together, man.’ This might appeal to British common-sense and pragmatism, but it rather neglects the question of whether the patient has any agency. A modern doctor would be talking about structured intervention to help the patient understand their condition and to help themself out of it.

The whole point of ‘false consciousness’ is surely that it is delusional and broadly resilient. One man’s views will not change that, however astute those views might be. Instead, we need to think about how we can create the conditions for the necessary changes to take place, and then work towards making them happen.

Mr Sikorski talks a lot of sense, but it can only be a starting point: it is up to the rest of us to move things forward.

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