Voice, Disloyalty and Brexit: The Attractions and Pitfalls of Differentiated Integration

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  • April 25, 2017

Nick Sitter

The European Union is fundamentally about power-sharing. The original six member states built a political system based on consensus. It allowed a supranational executive to manage day-to-day policy, but legislation required the consent of most of its members. In practice, this meant unanimity. As the EU grew, member state governments accepted that participation in the EU came at the price of having to accept some policy measures with which they did not agree.

In general, EU’s member states have been able to live with the resulting set of compromises. Broadly speaking, their options were – as Albert Hirschman memorably put it half a century ago: Exit, Voice, and Loyalty. If governments could not loyally implement EU policy (or get away with creative forms of transposition), they could voice opposition and attempt to change it. This resulted in a range of opt-ins and opt-out – or differentiated integration.

Ultimately, a dissatisfied state could leave the EU. Greenland did so in 1985, and now the UK is on its way out. But, in the meantime, others have explored a new option – disloyalty. Since 2010, the Fidesz government in Hungary has confronted the EU openly, demanding substantial changes to EU policy and circumventing EU law by way of creative compliance. Since December 2015, the newly elected Polish Law and Justice (PiS) government has embarked on a similar strategy.

Voice has proven to be the easiest and most effective option by far. When the Danish government failed to secure a positive vote in the referendum on the Maastricht Treaty, it negotiated a series of opt-outs with its EU partners, secured the approval of almost all Danish parties, and won a second referendum. Sweden held a referendum on the common currency, and when the government’s effort to secure a ‘yes’ failed, it argued (successfully) that it was not legally obliged to join EMU. In similar vein, the UK opted out of the Schengen arrangements, but ‘opted in’ to a number of specific policies. In all three cases, the governments worked from a relatively weak domestic position, inasmuch as internal party dissent or opposition in parliament made it essential to accommodate Euro-scepticism. The EU’s history shows that voice actually works well. The danger comes when a prime minister too obviously uses the threat of a referendum to press for concessions that no other member state is prepared to accept – as David Cameron learnt in February 2016.

Disloyalty has been the most creative approach to European integration, and it seems to have served the Hungarian government well. Despite criticism from the Commission for its persistent effort to centralise political and economic power and limit the rule of law, Hungary has so far avoided anything more serious than ordinary infringement procedures. What Viktor Orbán proudly calls his ‘illiberal democracy’ thrives in the EU, has been supported by EU funding and has been, at the time of writing, protected by his fellow members of the European People’s Party. The danger for Fidesz is not so much that the disloyalty strategy might not deliver the goods, but rather that their Warsaw-based ideological bed-fellows’ more open and assertive confrontation might provoke a more resolute response from the EU.

All three options – voice, disloyalty and exit – involved their own false promises and pitfalls. A governing party that voices too much protest about its being outvoted in Brussels, might find itself outflanked by genuine Eurosceptics. A government that bends the laws too far might find itself on the receiving end of ever sharper criticism from its fellow member states. And the Eurosceptic government of a state on the way out runs the danger of overestimating the importance of its own power.

Brexit has taken the question of differentiated integration to a completely new level. The Brexit process is fraught with far more uncertainty than any other of the EU’s relationships with its other ‘quasi-members’ – Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein. The Norwegians opted to join the Single Market, including free movement, supranational courts and all. For more than two decades, the European Economic Area agreement has worked due to goodwill on both sides. Most Norwegian governments have been more pro-EU than their parliaments (and, arguably, their voters), and carefully balanced their quest to take part in the Single Market against the constraints imposed by Eurosceptic electorates. The result may not be that pretty, but it has proven remarkably durable.

Theresa May has made it clear that she believes beating ‘saboteurs’ (as the Daily Mail put it) with an enhanced Conservative majority in the June election will make it easier for her to confront ‘Brussels’. This might go down well among those celebrating the achievements of the colonial ‘perfidious Albion’, but half a century of Scandinavian experience suggests that she might well be wrong.

A big lesson from the Scandinavian experience is that an outsider’s most important task is to exert influence on EU decision-making. The danger that Theresa May will face if her party wins a big Commons majority in June is that she will not be able to point to domestic constraints when trying to work out compromises with her EU partners. In zero-sum negotiations it might be useful to have strong backing at home and room for manoeuvre – but when negotiating complex institutional arrangements with the EU, the Scandinavian lesson is that it may be far more productive to emphasise the need for broad consensus at home and a willingness to accommodate both Eurosceptics and the EU’s legal system. In other words, modesty and being in tight domestic spots enhance negotiation positions with EU member states, not sabre-rattling hubris.

The author of this blog writes in a personal capacity and does not represent the TransCrisis project team as a whole.

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