Under pressure from Eurosceptics inside and outside the Conservative Party, prime minister David Cameron has laid out the key reforms he wants made to the UK’s European Union membership. But, like many things to do with the EU, the reform plan is smoke and mirrors, misdirection from a stage magician to leave his audience confused about what is happening.
First, he is playing the Eurosceptics. At the 2015 General Election, the Conservatives succeeded in containing the challenge the anti-EU UKIP made to its grassroots support. But while this ‘stand’ against the EU is politically expedient, Cameron clearly has no intention of galvanising a popular movement behind parliamentary sovereignty. Indeed, if he really wanted the country to belong to the people, he would campaign to leave the EU, not reform it.
Second, Cameron is also willing to play on the misunderstanding that the EU dictates British policy. Often, laws and policies have their origins in Brussels, and seem to be visited on Britain. But that is not really how the EU works. All of the governments of Europe are seriously out of touch with their electorates. These elites cling to one another in the institutions of the EU in order to forge solidarity against their own peoples. Blaming the EU for the policies that they, the national governments, cannot persuade people to support is a convenient excuse – and it’s also a way to train people to expect expert opinion to determine policy. The EU is not what is robbing people of their right to govern themselves. It has only filled the vacuum left by national governments that have stopped drawing their authority from the popular mandate.
The objective of Cameron’s prestidigitation is clear. He wants to present himself as being on the side of the people, standing up to Europe. He thinks that people will identify, for instance, with his harsh measures against refugees – or migrants – such as cutting their welfare payments, so he demands that the British government has the right to do this. While ordinary people’s distrust of migrants may have bound them to the Conservative Party in the past, it is unclear if the same would happen today. After all, UKIP’s attempts to turn out an anti-migrant vote at the General Election were not so successful.
Cameron also hopes that committing Europe to market competitiveness will show that he is standing up for Britain. This is a weird proposal. Market competitiveness has been central to EU policy for the past 30 years. What’s more, it flatly contradicts Cameron’s other main demand, namely that the EU should accept the sovereignty of national governments. In other words, with the EU committed to market competitiveness, no government that wants to steer another course, perhaps making the welfare state a higher priority, would be at liberty to do so. Indeed, this has already happened in Greece and elsewhere. From the moment the then president of the European Commission, Jacques Delors, kicked the European Economic Community back into gear in the 1980s, the commissioners, civil servants and ministers that run it have coalesced around the idea that the market must take priority over national policy.