Proposed by David Cameron during the last general elections, the EU referendum had as its context the threat that the UK Independence Party posed his nationalist constituency, at a time when the Conservatives were in a coalition with the Liberal Democrats. But given the parliamentary majority that the Conservatives subsequently achieved, with the collapse of the Lib Dems and the decline of UKIP, the referendum has become an embarrassing and somewhat meaningless leftover. Or rather it now promises to tear apart the Conservative Party at the very moment of its victory, while also threatening to transform Britain’s role within Europe. Emerging out of purely domestic and short-term considerations, in other words, the referendum has inadvertently become a high-risk gamble for the UK’s foreign policy, since the EU is coincidentally in a state of crisis as well.
When the referendum had been promised, Europe seemed to be in the process of surmounting its financial troubles, and worries about immigration from its new member states in the east were no longer so pressing for Britain. Since then, of course, the arrival on the continent of refugees from outside the Union has become a significant problem in the public imagination, even if it is also a short-term one that pales into insignificance besides Europe’s continuing financial woes. This new situation risks making the referendum into a real contest, and has made Cameron’s efforts to demonstrate British leadership in the EU meaningless. For he can only do so with regard to the now largely irrelevant issues of eastern European migration, and a UK bill of rights that wouldn’t in fact contravene the European Convention on Human Rights.
While it ostensibly provides Britain an opportunity to redefine its relationship with the EU, if not exit it altogether, the referendum may also put the Union’s future in doubt. For if a British exit can set the precedent for a general breakdown of the Union, its continuing membership under special terms could prevent Europe’s further and necessary integration. The referendum, therefore, is not something either the UK or the EU wants, and is a sign of their weakness not strength. Indeed, the fact that Britain has opted for a referendum to decide its future in the EU suggests its government’s abdication of responsibility and leadership on the subject.
By subordinating parliamentary to direct democracy, the UK is ironically adopting a mode of decision-making characteristic of the EU, while abandoning its own form of exercising sovereignty. Since Europe, as we shall see, possesses no sovereignty of its own, direct democracy serves as an adequate if not inevitable way for its members to relate to the Union. But making such temporary forms of popular sovereignty possible, if only for constitutionally important matters, has compromised Britain’s own democracy and already defined its domestic politics in European terms. Last year’s Scottish referendum for instance, was also premised upon the possibility of an independent Scotland joining the EU.
From the Holy Roman Empire to Napoleon, the Kaiser and Hitler’s projects of continental unification, Europe in this story has only ever been brought together in an imperial despotism, one that it has been Britain’s duty to prevent in the name of its own independence and the freedom of all Europeans. Such a view was certainly held by figures like Churchill and Margaret Thatcher, though both also understood that Britain could only exercise this duty by taking her place within Europe, as she was no longer able to risk exclusion from it.
Popular though, it continues to be as a justification for the UK’s role within the Union, this narrative is belied by the facts of history. For Britain has herself been a continental power, from the Normans to the Stuarts, and then again under the Hanoverians. Rather than this stereotyped and centuries-long narrative that sets a maritime power against a continental one, I would like to suggest that the European project, and Britain’s role in it, only became possible with the practically simultaneous end of the European empires and the beginning of the Cold War. For if it was the loss of their colonies that made European states properly continental ones, it was the Soviet threat that prompted their union, which was initially economic and then increasingly political in nature.
The imperial hand in Europe’s unification is rarely spoken of but everywhere visible. Not only did many of the chief architects of the Union, such as Jacques Delors himself, come from the old colonial services, but the Commonwealth, itself a survival of the British Empire, has also continued to serve as an imagined alternative for Britain outside Europe. Deeply distrustful of German reunification after the Cold War, which she thought would create a powerful European state at the centre of a new empire, Mrs. Thatcher could only turn rhetorically to the Commonwealth as an international alternative, which she thought shared more in the way of an Anglo-Saxon history than Europe ever could. Today UKIP invokes the same imperial ties to justify its rejection of the EU.
Interesting about Britain’s rhetorical turn to her former empire is a realization that the old-fashioned sovereignty ‘Eurosceptics’ apparently champion is no longer sufficient when set beside the Union. Of course the alliance that really allows Britain to outstrip the EU is the one based on security and surveillance with the United States and the old ‘white’ dominions of Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. But this still leaves Europe’s market and structures of governance unrivalled as challenges to Britain’s standing in the region. And today, it is no longer even possible to choose the empire as an alternative to Europe, given the fact that migrants from former European colonies have become a bigger political issue than Polish workers or laws made in Brussels.
British suspicion of the EU, of course, is chiefly driven by the fear that membership in the body compromises its sovereignty as far as currency control, borders, rights and standards are concerned. And yet despite having a currency the Union can’t really be said to possess its own sovereignty either. With American bases scattered across large parts of the continent and an inability to act militarily or indeed politically without extensive consultation, it is effectively NATO that determines European sovereignty. Indeed by pushing for the Union’s eastward expansion following the Cold War, it is NATO that has defined Europe’s geopolitics, and NATO rather than the EU that the Russians have attempted to stop in Georgia and the Ukraine.
The EU’s lack of sovereignty has led to its economic woes and political limitations, necessitating the ‘ever closer union’ in which an economy rather than simply a currency is shared, and where a new way of arriving at decisions, including military ones, needs to be discovered. The 2008 financial crisis had exposed the ‘democratic deficit’ in the Union, with central banks and bureaucrats instead of citizens determining the fate of member nations like Cyprus, Greece and Spain.
The big question for Europe is how to elaborate a new kind of sovereignty for the Union, one that is less than an empire and more than an alliance of states. All the continent’s other problems depend upon this question, which is perhaps why they change so rapidly, with peoples and politicians shifting so abruptly from welcoming refugees to repudiating them.
It is telling that the European project, bloated as it is by the absorption of countries with very different economies and political structures, can be brought to crisis by its inability to handle migrant flows. The closing of internal borders, matched by the threat from some countries to exit the currency union, and, as with Britain, even the EU as a whole, are all signs of a fundamental weakness, that of an absent or deferred sovereignty. And if Muslims, both refugees and citizens, are increasingly also seen as a threat to Europe, in part it is surely because they are taken as representing a secret or alternative sovereignty to that lacking in the Union. But more accurate might be the fact that like the Europe that provides the most privileged site of Muslim militancy and protest, Islam, too, is often presented as a transnational phenomenon or identity that possesses no sovereignty of its own.
While the world is full of transnational organizations and identities, none possess the economic productivity, social reality and political potential of the European Union, which nevertheless lacks sovereignty.
The debate over Britain’s future in the Union doesn’t even begin to address the political problem of Europe, though its exit might just allow the EU to do so. Yet, as long as NATO and the UK continue to represent the de facto sovereignty of the continent, the EU will continue as a polity without sovereignty and so without a future it is able to control. Until now the UK has been unable to present a vision of the Union’s future, nor indeed of its own, and serves therefore only to limit both. The question is not so much whether Britain will leave the EU, but if its politics of the status quo can survive within or without the Union.
Dr. Faisal Devji is University Reader in Modern South Asian History at the University of Oxford and Fellow of St. Antony’s college, where he is also Director of the Asian Studies Centre. He is also an Institute of Public Knowledge Fellow at New York University.