The British premier’s ‘renegotiation’ is a banal charade, but one which we are now obliged to play along with, write James Bartholomeusz and Daniel Schade.
It is a great pity that Jean Baudrillard did not live to see the past few weeks, in which British prime minister David Cameron has successfully ‘renegotiated’ his country’s membership of the European Union. The French philosopher would have been in his element, for this spectacle has surely been the perfect realisation of his prognosis for postmodern society: the point at which politics is completely supplanted by political communication. Since Cameron’s announcement of the June referendum on the steps of 10 Downing Street, politicians across the UK and the rest of Europe have taken to the airwaves to attest to the seismic changes that have been made, announcing that the EU is now fit for continued British membership. Some, including Angela Merkel, have gone so far as to suggest that Cameron’s reforms will not only be good for Britain but for other member-states as well.
None of this, of course, is in any way true. The concessions that Cameron claims to have won are entirely cosmetic, if that: many (such as cutting regulatory red-tape and the involvement of national parliaments in lawmaking) were already permissible under treaty law or form part of the European Commission’s current legislative plan; others (such as welfare support for intra-EU migrants) tinkered at the margins of the issue whilst failing to alter anything substantial. But then, this was the result that many predicted. The renegotiation process was never about any problems with the state of Britain’s EU membership, but rather a haphazardly choreographed attempt to manage the divisions within the British Conservative Party.
Having enthusiastically supported Britain joining the European Economic Community in the early 1970s, many Tories have since developed a rabidly Eurosceptic tendency that has come to threaten party unity. Cameron’s decade-long tenure as Conservative leader has been marred by near-continual disquiet over Europe, always an ominous background noise but now threatening to drown out all else. In 2009, he withdrew the Tories from the European People’s Party, the continent’s main centre-Right organisation and perennially the most powerful group in the European Parliament, and went on to co-found the Alliance of European Conservatives and Reformists, an uneasy amalgam of various hard-Right and Eurosceptic organisations. In 2011, now as prime minister but again under pressure from his backbenchers, he blocked attempts in the European Council to solve the Eurozone’s structural problems with another treaty. And, in 2013, he found himself promising an in-out referendum on Britain’s EU membership if the Conservatives were to win the next general election.
When, last year, this victory unexpectedly came to pass and Cameron found himself returning to Downing Street at the head of a majority government, his earlier commitment became a liability. Having narrowly avoided presiding over the break-up of the United Kingdom in the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, there was now the possibility that he would oversee the loss of the country’s most important international alliance. Having conceded to rising Eurosceptic sentiment in his own party and the British public more widely for over five years, he could not be seen to support continued EU membership in its current form; however, it was also abundantly clear that other European countries had no appetite for British special pleading, impatient with Cameron treating European Council meetings as a series of domestic media opportunities rather than as fora for serious diplomacy. There was only one solution: to launch a ‘renegotiation’ that would change next to nothing, but sell it as a wholesale rewrite of Britain’s membership conditions.
It would be an economic and geopolitical travesty for both Britain and the EU if the two were to part ways this summer: that fact, at least, Cameron has on his side. It means that many who hold nothing but contempt for his rebranding exercise must now grit their teeth and pretend that he has done a substantial job, that this renegotiation package means real change for the UK in Europe, and that it is therefore permissible to support the Stronger In campaign. The irony of this predicament is that the renegotiation has not only failed to deliver any actual change but has also perpetuated and exacerbated a genuine problem in British-European relations. It has underscored the Brits’ sense that their country somehow contributes to the European order whilst receiving nothing in return, whereas the truth is manifestly the opposite: the UK and the EU are co-dependent entities, which each derive a great deal of their strength from the other.
It has become a cliché to say that Europe is beset with crises, from the immense influx of refugees to its relations with Russia and the persistent instability of the world economy. This crisis of British membership was entirely avoidable and an egregious distraction from the most pertinent issues facing the continent today. For now, anyone with an interest in the European order must engage in this charade and back Cameron’s campaign to stay in the EU; the real questions about the role of the UK in a Europe that must either dissolve or press onwards into full integration remain unanswered. Until either of those eventualities come to pass, the postmodern malaise that Baudrillard predicted will be the order of the day.
Image ‘British PM David Cameron’ courtesy of Global Panorama via Flickr, released under Creative Commons License 2.0.