Simon Hix is professor in the Department of Government at the London School of Economics and Political Science. He provided evidence to the European Scrutiny Committee in the House of Commons during the parliamentary debates on the EU Bill. In this interview to Nouvelle Europe, he gives his impressions on the significance and relevance of this piece of legislation which requires a referendum before any further transfer of power to the EU.
Professor Hix, the Coalition government introduced the EU Bill in the House of Commons in November. The Labour Shadow Minister for Europe, Wayne David, called the bill “the most complicated” on the floor of the House of Commons in the last 30 years. This legislative project can be seen as an attempt to deeply change the relationship between the United Kingdom and the EU: its most important feature is a “referendum lock” that would trigger a referendum on any “fundamental shift of authority” to the EU.Does this mean that the honeymoon between Brussels on the one side and Prime Minister David Cameron on the other side of the Channel is now over?
We don’t know, it’s too early to tell. There is two ways to think about this bill, one is that it represents a fundamental change in British relationship to Europe, the other one is, that it is purely cheap talk by the government to appease some of the right-wingers in the party, and it would be so much worse if they weren’t in coalition with the Lib Dems. Those two narratives are running side by side right now, and we won’t know for some time which one of those two narratives is really right, also because we don’t really know how things play out in the bill.
Following the first narrative, this would be a fundamental shift and would ultimately lead to Britain’s detachment, a sort of semi-detached relationship between Britain and the rest of the EU. The bill is putting in several things unique for Britain and unique of any Member State in their relationship with the EU, because the referendum lock does not only apply to treaty changes. The referendum lock, the conservatives have argued for some time, should have applied to the Amsterdam Treaty, the Nice Treaty, the Lisbon Treaty, should have applied to any decision on Britain to join EMU. Interestingly they did not introduce a referendum on the Single European Act or the Maastricht Treaty.
…when they were in Government…
Exactly. But treaty changes are only one side: the EU Bill would also commit a government to hold a referendum on pretty much any move from unanimity to qualified majority voting (QMV), you could invoke the passerelle clauses to do that, or any move from the consultation to the ordinary legislative procedure to increase the power of the European Parliament. Interestingly, they’ve excluded the issue of enlargement, although you can argue that enlargement to Turkey is a fundamentally much more significant constitutional event for the EU than deciding whether we have a carbon tax by unanimity or QMV or whether the European Parliament has co-decision for a carbon tax. So clearly there’s lots of politics in what’s in.
On the one hand you could argue that this fundamentally shifts Britain's relationship with the EU, because it binds the hands of any future government of Britain with very high thresholds. On the other hand you could say that all of these things are not credible, because if any government really wants to do any of these things, they would just amend the bill, just amend the text of the legislation. So if any government decides that they want for example to have an EU carbon tax, they’ll just say “let’s take that out of the legislation so we don’t need a referendum”.
The irony is this conflict in the bill between asserting that Britain is based on parliamentary sovereignty and therefore Brussels cannot be sovereign over our national parliament, yet a referendum which is of course a constraint on parliamentary sovereignty, as the latter is supposed to mean “no current majority can bind the hands of some future majority”. Anything in the legislation can be written now, but any future majority could just either amend the legislation or get rid of it altogether.
So you can see a narrative which is “this is purely symbolic, it doesn't have any real meaning whatsoever, and a narrative which says “this is fundamentally different”. We just don’t know which one of those two things it is yet.
Would it actually be feasible to change the bill?
Once they’ve adopted it? It actually depends how big your majority is in Parliament and what the views are of those people. You can imagine this even with this current Coalition government: if there’s something on the EU agenda they’re in favour of but which would require a referendum, they would just amend the bill. I mean, the anti-Europeans say, “well, but at least it forces them to do this kind of thing”. You are raising the threshold, which means there will have to be a public debate that acknowledges that this is going on. You are stopping the idea that diplomats just go off to Brussels and then negotiate on their own. It is feasible, but there is a bit of a constraint.
You gave evidence to the European Scrutiny Committee in written form and you were directly questioned by the MPs as well. What do you actually see as the overarching aims of the bill? It certainly increases democratic accountability?
I think there are several different aims. There is one broad “democratic accountability”- type of aim that is to tie the hands of our ministers and the government when they negotiate in Brussels. With single party government historically in the UK, and with a very weak House of Commons, the perception has been that governments can basically do what ever they want in Brussels and nobody has any influence over that, because it doesn’t become an issue in elections and it never gets discussed in the House of Commons. So basically the kind of narrative you get in Britain is “Brussels is a kind of run-away machine that we have no control over.”
In other countries governments are more constrained by Coalition government or more powerful parliaments. So part of the bill is exactly that, to deliberately try to put a brake on the possibility that governments are these run-away agents, to hold, to tie, to pre-commit them to certain things. You can think of that as not necessarily damaging to the overall development of the EU and Britain’s relationship with the EU.
But this parallel aim, I think, is definitely a sort of very Eurosceptic subtext that is “we want to do this, because this is a slippery slope to Britain eventually leaving the EU and we have to politically start somewhere.” A lot of the anti-Europeans would actually like that. They would like the bill to be even more extensive. They would actually like referendum commitments on virtually everything. What was amazing to me, when watching the debate in the House of Commons, were the proposed amendments from the more Eurosceptic British conservatives. I already read this as a pretty Eurosceptic bill, but they saw it as not really Eurosceptic enough.
What were they proposing? How strong are those Eurosceptics?
The bill breaks up different issues to be voted on: some things just need a parliamentary vote, some things need a parliamentary vote and a referendum and some things just need a referendum. The Eurosceptics wanted a lot of those issues that just require a parliamentary vote to be shifted over to require a parliamentary vote and a referendum. The majority has argued however that these issues were not of fundamental constitutional significance. It’s hard to make a case, as they have decided for example that some elements of social or environment policy are constitutional and some are not.
We’re seeing a fundamental change in the Conservative Party and a division in the Conservative Party that we’ve never really had before. We’ve always had a kind of anti-European wing of the Conservative Party, but the anti-European wing of the Conservative Party is now taking on board a sort of American Tea Party populism. The Conservative Party has historically been opposed to referendums on the grounds of parliamentary sovereignty, but now you have a wing of the Conservative Party that does not like parliamentary sovereignty. An MP said to me “I don’t have a problem with there being referendums on absolutely everything”, he wanted to turn us into California!
I have never heard that from a Conservative politician before! Normally it has been the Left that wanted more populist politics, but now we are seeing a kind of right-wing populism, that we don't normally have in Britain. Normally the centre-right and the Conservative party have been thinking the government should be run by the elites sitting inside the parliament and didn't trust the public.
A common metaphor for bargaining in the EU is the so-called two-level game, meaning that the Heads of State and Government negotiate at the European level and have to “sell” the results at the national level. Would David Cameron’s bargaining power be strengthened if he could, well, threaten a referendum?
This is an old argument in International Relations that comes from Thomas Schelling, called the “Paradox of Weakness”. The idea is that the more your hands are bound when you negotiate, the more someone has to give in to you. Plenty of evidence shows that if there are referendums to ratify treaties, these states tend to get what they want in the negotiations, because when they are bargaining, the other states know that these states wont get it passed unless those states get what they want. You saw an element of that in the negotiations on the draft constitution: When Blair announced, he would have a referendum in Britain, and a couple of weeks later Chirac announced, he would have a referendum in France, as a “competitive referendum calling”.
…in the end there were a dozen of referendums announced…
Yes, that’s right. I think, in IGC [Intergovernmental Conference] negotiations referendums are a credible threat, they strengthen your bargaining power. But I don’t think that applies in a lot of these other small issues, because on each of these issues there are two questions to ask: First, can the states go ahead without Britain? Second, is the threat from Britain credible?
In IGCs you don’t have an opt-out. It has to be ratified by everybody, you cannot say “we are going ahead without you”. That puts everyone in a strong bargaining position. But with a lot of the other issues, the other member states could just invoke the two-speed Europe: “we just go ahead without you”, “we’ll adopt common corporate taxes without you”. And that weakens your bargaining position. And a lot of issues are of that nature.
Secondly, is the threat of a referendum really credible? I don’t think it is. For a lot of these issues I cannot imagine there ever being a referendum in Britain. Most of the other member states will look at Britain and say “you are not really going to have a referendum on whether we move from unanimity to QMV on this policy issue, are you?” And of course, they are not.
So it might strengthen British hands in IGC negotiations, but we are not going to have any more IGCs for a long time and on the issue-by-issue policy questions it’s not credible.
Simon Hix joined the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) in 1997 and was promoted to Professor in 2004. He took his undergraduate and masters degrees at the LSE and his PhD at the European University Institute, in Florence.
Professor Hix is Director of the Political Science and Political Economy Group at the LSE and is the co-editor of the journal European Union Politics. He has held visiting appointments at several top universities, including Stanford, Berkeley, UC San Diego, Sciences-Po in Paris, the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin, the College of Europe in Bruges, and Korean Institute for International Economic Policy in Seoul. He has extensive consultancy experience, including for the UK Cabinet Office and Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the European Parliament, the European Commission, the European Policy Centre, the Asian Development Bank, and has given evidence to the European affairs committees in the House of Lords and House of Commons.
He has written several books on EU and comparative politics, including What’s Wrong With the European Union and How to Fix It (Polity, 2008). The third edition of his textbook The Political System of the European Union is forthcoming this spring (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011).
To go further
On Nouvelle Europe
- Simon Hix : Referendums in a two-speed Europe (2d part)
- The EU bill: the victory of euroscepticism in British politics?
- A new British attitude towards Europe?
Source photo : London School of Economics