Posts Tagged ‘Featured’

Not always so Eurosceptic: Britain and the inter-war dream of European unity

tommaso milaniBritain has not always been reluctant to countenance European unity. Tommaso Milani (LSE) recalls the intellectual impetus for a European community in the inter-war period, which was driven by a desire for peace and, from some, the left-wing case for a socialist European economy.

As history is written and rewritten in constant dialogue with the present, Brexit is likely to affect the way Britons think about their national past. Due to current events, some of the interpretations of the relationship that the UK has had with the European Communities from 1950 onwards will undergo close and renewed scrutiny. Perhaps future research will finally dispel the aura of historical inevitability that surrounds Britain’s pursuit of EEC membership – which is how the story has often been presented in textbooks and surveys for the general public.

national party

A Conservative (National) party poster from 1935. Image: Bodleian Library via a CC-BY-NC-SA 3.0 licence

The task of the scholars operating in this field – to quote a witty analogy coined by Wolfram Kaiser – may no longer resemble “that of a pathologist concerned with identifying the syndromes responsible for Britain’s dysfunctional behaviour”, the latter being “the abnormal detachment” from the European project following the second world war. Writing in 2019, the assumption that Britain’s fate lies, and supposedly always lay, in Europe looks increasingly questionable. Long gone is the belief, so widespread in the 1970s, that the decision to join European institutions had become, in the words of Frederick S Northedge, “natural and perhaps inescapable” and only the “faulty perceptions, anticipations and priorities” of successive post-war cabinets prevented the country from embracing its preordained destiny earlier.

However, even revisionism has its dangers – the biggest of which is to further downplay the already neglected role that ideas of European unity played in British history and culture, hence fuelling a narrative of separateness and estrangement. Scholars must resist the temptation to conflate the aloofness that the British political class occasionally displayed towards institutional endeavours aimed at fostering European integration with a general lack of interest in blueprints for a federal Europe. While it is true that British leaders – especially when serving in office – have been scarcely receptive to ‘Europeanist’ intellectuals and societal pressure groups, those inputs nonetheless existed and drew heavily from a long-standing tradition of a distinctively British – as well as imperial – international thought.

If we move beyond the examination of the European policies actually put in place and incorporate a wider range of elite-level discourses on Britain’s position towards the Continent in our analysis, the thesis according to which supranationalism is a fundamentally non-British, or even anti-British, idea appears utterly untenable. As a consequence, the more we scratch beneath the government level, the less persuasive the exceptionalist accounts – based on an allegedly unbridgeable gulf between British and European attitudes towards national sovereignty – seem to be.

To be sure, even when sceptical or semi-detached, British intellectuals of the 19th and 20th centuries could hardly ignore the significance of Europe as a political arena – partly because of its geographical proximity, partly because the rise of the British Empire led them to focus on international relations as a distinct area of inquiry. After 1914, it was the problem of peace that came to dominate British thinking about the Continent – and understandably so, considering the sheer loss of life that the first world war wrought on the UK. While British policy promoted the creation of a relatively loose League of Nations, prominent voices contended that only the centralised pooling of armaments, rather than a non-binding legal framework for member states, would prevent the outbreak of wars in the long run. The trajectory of Philip Kerr – a distinguished politician, editor, and diplomat better known as Lord Lothian – from critical backer of the League to advocate of European federalism through a prolonged flirtation with appeasement epitomises the painful process through which growing sections of the British establishment called into question the sustainability of the 1919 Versailles settlement.

A second, original source of support for the creation of a European federation involving Britain came from left-wing thinkers who, during the Great Depression, highlighted the danger that the drive towards greater capital concentration, economic nationalism and autarchy would exacerbate international tensions. Rather than simply championing the restoration of liberal free trade, authors like Henry Noel Brailsford, Kingsley Martin, and Leonard Woolf envisaged a European federation centred on wide-ranging economic planning, aimed at ensuring full employment, monetary stability, equal living standards between different European regions, and – perhaps more crucially – a unique sphere of influence for British socialism, which they regarded as different both from American unfettered capitalism and from the Soviet, more authoritarian brand of it.

Acknowledging the existence of a substantial body of imaginative, highly sophisticated and at times surprisingly far-sighted literature on European unity produced by British intellectuals before 1945 should not, however, be taken as conclusive evidence of Britain’s inherent European vocation. Rather, it should encourage historians to investigate how, in many respects, the peculiar, historically contingent form of European integration experimented from 1950 onwards – i.e. the Monnetian, functionalist undertaking centred on sectoral integration and aimed at achieving increasingly close interdependence between member states – was poorly suited to meet the expectations, the interests, and the demands that British supporters of European unity had expressed during the previous decades.

Researchers may come to realise that an even more profound mismatch emerged between the neat, highly stylised but deeply coherent British models of European federation elaborated throughout the interwar period and the complex, muddled, and inevitably haphazard set of institutional arrangements through which the actual European Union was gradually built. Nevertheless, British visions of European unity deserve better consideration – not only as a repository of ideas, but also as a reminder of the roads not taken by the process of integration.

If, as the convulsions of Brexit suggest, Britain’s relationship with Europe is bound to remain problematic, unresolved and impervious to any teleological reading, one could only hope that greater engagement with British ideas will stimulate Europeans to reflect more critically about the EU – its achievements, its shortcomings, and its future prospects.

This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Brexit blog, nor the LSE.

Further reading and references

M. Beloff, Britain and European Union: Dialogue of the Deaf (Basingstoke: Macmillan 1996)

D. P. Billington Jr, Lothian: Philip Kerr and the Quest for World Order (Westport: Praeger 2006)

M. Burgess, The British Tradition of Federalism (London: Leicester University Press 1995)

M. Gilbert, ‘The Sovereign Remedy of European Unity: The Progressive Left and Supranational Government, 1935–1945’, International Politics (46:1 2009)

J. Frankel, British Foreign Policy, 1945-1973 (London: The Royal Institute of International Affairs 1975)

W. Kaiser, Using Europe, Abusing the Europeans: Britain and European Integration, 1945-63 (Basingstoke: Macmillan 1999, 2nd ed.)

T. Milani, ‘Retreat from the Global? European Unity and British Progressive Intellectuals, 1930-1945’, International History Review, January 2019, 1-18.

T. Milani, “From Laissez-Faire to Supranational Planning: The Economic Debate within Federal Union (1938-1945)”, European Review of History / Revue européenne d’histoire, (23:4 2016), 664-685.

F. S. Northedge, Descent from Power: British Foreign Policy, 1945-1973 (London: George Allen & Unwin 1974)

Dr Tommaso Milani is a Guest Teacher of International History at the LSE and a stipendiary lecturer in Modern European History at Balliol College, Oxford.

The EU’s “ever tighter union” needs informed debate, not blowing things up

Supporters of a hard Brexit have cited research by Matthias Matthijs, Craig Parsons and Christina Toenshoff to make their case – but these political-economy scholars see their work pointing in other directions. Describing the EU as an “ever tighter union,” their research highlights that some constraints on member states are now stronger than those on states within the US federation. This description can indeed support some criticisms of the EU, but also implies criticisms of American governance. Their broad takeaway contrasts sharply to the dominant tone of pro-Brexit thinking: we need careful and well-informed debate on these complex questions of economic rules and policy, not simplistic calls to blow things up.

As the Brexit drama drags on, now moving to salvage an orderly withdrawal with a “flextension” into October 2019, hard-core Brexiteers are increasingly frustrated. In the view of The Telegraph’s Allister Heath – complaining about Theresa May’s discussions of compromise options with Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn—there is “no betrayal May won’t countenance in order to push through her Remainer Brexit.” To justify a harder Brexit, Heath pointed approvingly to our recent publication, “Ever Tighter Union? Brexit, Grexit, and Frustrated Differentiation in the Single Market and Eurozone.” We offer this post to discuss its implications in a more balanced way. We are comfortable connecting our research to some criticisms of the EU, but not to endorsing Brexit (let alone a hard “cliff edge” Brexit scenario).

Our paper appeared in a special issue collection of Comparative European Politics addressing pressures for “differentiation” in the EU, i.e. various arrangements that allow member-states to mix and match their European commitments. It is common these days to suggest that more differentiation is inevitable in the EU’s future. The Union already functions at “multiple speeds” of integration, but has become both more heterogeneous and more centralized over time, leading to rising tensions.

We cautioned that differentiation may not come easily. Recent history underscores obstacles to differentiated deals in the EU’s core areas of the Single Market and the Eurozone. In the fall of 2015, the British sought various opt-outs in the Single Market and were largely rebuffed. That set up the 2016 Brexit vote—which quickly hit the same EU wall against attempts to “cherry-pick” (that is, differentiate) some Single Market commitments while dropping others. Meanwhile, in the Eurozone, the crisis-struck Greeks sought wiggle room within the rules, and flirted with a euro exit (“Grexit”) if they didn’t get it. They got neither: rather than differentiation or Grexit, we saw a tightening of Eurozone oversight of national budgets and banking.

To highlight the distinctive nature of these EU requirements, our paper compares them to requirements the U.S. federal government makes of its states for market openness and fiscal discipline. We argued that “[EU] rules in these areas are considerably more constraining than are analogous federal constraints within the USA.” This is especially clear in the Eurozone: Brussels reviews (and can veto) national budgets and borrowing, but Washington D.C. has no similar powers. On the Single Market, Heath summarizes well our contrast of EU regulatory “harmonisation” to American fragmentation:

A number of US federal agencies are responsible for the regulation and minimum standards of certain goods… But unlike in the EU, where all of these rules are also centralised, states can set higher standards if they choose to. California operates its own standards in 800 [chemicals]; the equivalent number for the UK is zero. On top of that, many US goods aren’t regulated by the federal government, so in those areas states have greater powers than EU members. Lifts are a case in point: different rules apply in different states.

As to services, the US is even more decentralised, with states imposing their own laws when it comes to everything from lawyers to architects. Last but not least, US states are freer when it comes to awarding public-sector contracts: it’s the very opposite of the EU, where countries are bound strictly by common rules. The US system is too protectionist and anti-competitive, and in need of drastic reforms, but the point is that the EU now operates more like a single country in many areas than even America.

It does not surprise us that Brexiteers think that our “ever tighter union” image supports their cause. But Heath’s interpretation of our empirics displays the kind of careless thinking that drove the whole Brexit train-wreck in the first place. He jumps to overly hasty conclusions that say more about his preconceived antipathy to Europe than anything else.

He writes that the comparison proves “that harmonisation isn’t necessary to promote cross-border trade and mobility.” Not so fast: higher cross-border trade and mobility in the US do not prove that it has well-designed regulations. Americans share a language, an identity, and a distinctive culture of mobility. They trade and move despite costly regulatory barriers. The EU situation is the opposite. Europeans speak different languages and do not even move much inside their countries. They would presumably need to remove far more regulatory barriers than Americans to foster cross-border flows.

Heath’s big takeaway is that centralisation in the EU “won’t end until all differences and all national self-government have been stamped out.” Even if we restate this silly hyperbole as more reasonable concern about EU authority, an economically-literate person must recognize some benefits from “stamping out” regulatory differences. As Heath allows in passing, our comparison displays a protectionist US in need of reform as much as it showcases an overbearing EU. Maintaining different standards for lifts is simply bad governance. Consumers pay more when manufacturers must tailor lifts to different jurisdictions’ specifications. We believe that this variation often protects big U.S. producers against smaller or foreign competitors with less capacity to navigate a bewildering regulatory thicket. The US could actually do with a version of the EU’s 1995 Lifts Directive.

The same goes for other areas. EU requirements for competition in public contracts may feel onerous, but they make more economic sense than the laws of 47 U.S. states that favour their own firms (including outright bans: Oregon agencies may only purchase printing services in Oregon). Europeans have mixed feelings about the EU’s efforts to facilitate free movement—legitimately so—but it makes sense that experienced electricians licensed in one jurisdiction can safely work in others. In the US they cannot, period.

Our point is certainly not that the EU displays perfect economic governance. Far from it. Its regulatory harmonisation can be insensitive to conditions on the ground. Member-states have valid reasons to seek more discretion on certain issues or more economic policy levers, especially during hard times. In the Eurozone, the fiscal rules and some constraints that come with banking union may be economically inefficient and politically inexpedient (though concerns about Eurozone rules aren’t directly relevant to calls for Brexit). Our point is that economic governance is complex, involves many trade-offs, and requires careful consideration that can be helpfully informed by comparisons across polities that do things very differently.

Stepping back, it often seems that the Brexiteers have forgotten much of free-market economics, though most claim to be devotees of markets. For a century and a half after Adam Smith, the main challenges for markets were understood to come from protectionist local jurisdictions. Higher-level governments and international trade treaties fostered markets by tying lower-level actors to the mast of openness. With the 20th-century rise of modern economic regulation, the Soviet Union, and welfare states, many economists—especially American and British economists—shifted their emphasis to cast “big government” as the main concern for markets. Both concerns make some sense, but Brexit thinking remains selectively focused on this latter theme. Obsessed with the beast of the “Brussels bureaucracy” and the downsides of harmonization, Brexiteers have forgotten the more basic (and British-led) thinking of the 19th century. So too have most American conservatives today, who ignore ill-justified interstate barriers and champion “states’ rights.”

Again, we do not mean to dismiss criticisms of the EU’s “tight” constraints. There are economic and plenty of political reasons to debate them. But these questions of economic governance are too complex—and too consequential—to answer by chasing after Brexit unicorns of “taking back control” and dreams of Empire 2.0. Britain and Europe need a careful dialogue that takes seriously the costs, benefits and trade-offs between common rules and space for policy flexibility to help democracies respond to their electorates’ legitimate demands.

This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Brexit blog, nor the LSE. © Raimond Spekking / CC BY-SA 4.0 (via Wikimedia Commons)

Dr Matthias Matthijs is Assistant Professor of International Political Economy at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, DC. 

Dr Craig Parsons is Professor of Political Science, University of Oregon.

Christina Toenshoff is a PhD student in Political Science at Stanford University with a focus on International Relations and Comparative Politics. 

Why Britons living abroad for more than 15 years still don’t have a vote

Britons who have lived abroad for more than 15 years lose the right to vote in UK elections. This would have changed had a Private Member’s Bill with government support passed last month – but a Conservative MP talked it out. Susan Collard says the incident reveals the shortcomings of parliamentary democracy.

MPs’ attempts to take over the parliamentary agenda are an illustration of how the government lost control of its management of Brexit. But 22 March saw another spectacular example of how Theresa May has lost control of her own party as well.

That was the date set for the Report Stage of the Overseas Electors Bill 2017–19, a Private Member’s Bill (PMB) sponsored by the Conservative MP for Montgomeryshire, Glyn Davies, and backed by the government as a Handout Bill. The Bill aimed to introduce ‘Votes For Life’ by abolishing the existing ‘15-year rule’ which means that UK expatriates lose their vote 15 years after moving abroad. With the government’s support, it was successfully ushered through the second reading last February and the committee stage last autumn despite determined opposition from Labour, which put forward a range of objections and counter-proposals.

Britons living abroad were therefore expecting that it would proceed through the report stage to the House of Lords. Those who were disenfranchised in the 2016 EU referendum and hoped to win the right to vote in time for a possible ‘People’s Vote’ or another Brexit-based snap election felt a particular sense of urgency to get the Bill passed.

However, it fell foul of the arcane procedures in place for consideration of PMBs, which allow an opponent of the Bill to kill it by ‘talking it out’, otherwise known as filibustering. This is frequently the fate of PMBs, only 5% of which on average make it on to the statute book. A government-backed bill normally stands a better chance of success. However, these are not normal times and events on 22 March did not turn out as anticipated.

Instead of the Bill being talked out by Labour, which had been planning to focus the discussion on its cross-party amendment to allow votes at age 16, supported by 85 MPs, it was filibustered by the Conservative MP for Shipley, Philip Davies, a member of the European Research Group (ERG) and ardent Brexiteer. In what was clearly an act of collaboration with Labour against the government: Davies more or less copied and pasted a whole raft of new clauses and amendments tabled by the opposition during the Committee Stage (none of which had been successful) that he referred to as ‘Matheson’s greatest hits’ (Christian Matheson was leading the proceedings for Labour), adding a few more of his own to boot. Several amendments were tabled jointly by Matheson and Davies.

With his well-established talent for talking endlessly without much substance, only ‘giving way’ to pre-arranged interventions from other MPs in order to prolong a semblance of discussion, Davies ended his speech just 10 minutes before the Speaker called time at 2.30pm. This left only a few minutes for Labour’s Matheson and the sponsors of the Bill, Glyn Davies and the constitution minister Chloe Smith, to make a few concluding statements. Labour might have been glad of the support in killing the Bill, but its planned debate on votes at 16 was also hijacked in the process.

Other rebellious Tories also turned out for the session and Labour mustered an impressive showing. But genuine supporters of the Bill were thin on the ground: Dominic Grieve and Geoffrey Clifton-Brown for the Conservatives, Ben Bradshaw for Labour, Mike Gapes (ex-Labour, now Independent Group) and Layla Moran for the Lib Dems, were all notably absent. There was no question of anyone putting a closure motion for the government as at the Second Reading: their troops were simply not there to answer the call. The progress of the Bill came to an end, not with a bang but a whimper.

This deliberate humiliation of the government did not only reflect the fallout from Brexit. It was also a rebuke for trying to push through a significant change to the franchise, indeed a party manifesto pledge, through a PMB rather than a government Bill.

What was it that persuaded Philip Davies to jump in at the last minute with his myriad amendments? Was it that already-infamous speech by the Prime Minister against Parliament? Did he fear the possibility of an extended expat vote swinging the result against Brexit in the event of a second referendum? Was he put up to it by Labour to make sure the Bill would not get through? Whatever his motives, several conclusions can be drawn from this extraordinary display of strategic disruption.

First, there is serious need for reform of the procedures for Private Member’s Bills: the government has failed to act on a number of petitions and recent reports from the Parliamentary Procedure Committee making recommendations for change. A system that allows such wasting of parliamentary time by filibustering, funded by taxpayers, and watched with incredulity and incomprehension from the public gallery, surely has no place in a country which considers itself to be a model of democracy.

Second, the intervention by Philip Davies laid bare the internal disarray within the ranks of the Conservatives, torn apart by deep divisions over Brexit. That a Conservative MP should filibuster an important Bill supported by its own government reveals the extent to which the government has lost control of its own party.

Third, the question of overseas voting rights continues to be dominated, as in previous parliamentary debates, by party politics. As anticipated a year ago, the pursuit of partisan interests prevented the emergence of a properly informed discussion of the core issues at stake in this Bill. It is those who will become, or remain, disenfranchised by the 15-year rule that have paid the highest price.

The Overseas Electors Bill is now dead, but the question of UK overseas voting rights will not go away and determined expatriate campaigners will continue their battle for what they see as electoral justice. The Conservatives should recognise that trying to deliver votes for life through a ‘single issue bill’ presented as non-political was an ill-judged strategy that proved to be counter-productive, particularly in a hung parliament.

The politics of overseas voting in the UK are such that the removal of the time limit on the overseas franchise is more likely to be achieved if it is counter-balanced by the reduction of the voting age to 16, which is now a manifesto pledge of all opposition parties. Both extensions of the franchise could be incorporated into a single but wide-ranging bill to increase democratic engagement, which could also include a much needed overhaul of electoral administration, putting an end to the untidy state of current legislation, as called for by the Association of Electoral Administrators.

But – and it is a big but – this would demand a significant degree of political compromise. Unless the trauma of Brexit triggers a new approach to consensus-building in Westminster, the necessary cooperation remains unlikely: Britons abroad will once again drop out of sight and out of mind.

Readers who want to know more about the issue of voting rights for Britons abroad can go to Britons Voting Abroad or its Facebook page.

Note: This post represents the views of the author and not those of the LSE British Politics and Policy blog, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science. It was first published on the LSE Brexit blogFeatured image: Philip Davies MP. Photo: UK Parliament via an Attribution 3.0 Unported licence


About the Author

 Dr Sue Collard is a Senior Lecturer in French Politics and Contemporary European Studies in the Department of Politics, University of Sussex.




Europeans scarred by globalisation are more likely to support Brexit too

Simone Baglioni, Olga Biosca, Tom Montgomery (Glasgow Caledonian University)  reveal that those who were more likely to support Brexit in continental Europe belonged to social groups who have paid the highest costs for globalisation. They argue that this is because political leadership at the EU level has failed to defend societies from the scarring effects of globalisation and the global financial crisis.

There is almost always something final and conclusive when the result of a vote is announced, a sense that months if not years of debate have come to an end. For many, that feeling of conclusion of the debate surrounding the UK’s membership of European Union had been reached in the early hours of the morning of the 24 June 2016, when the veteran BBC broadcaster David Dimbleby uttered the words ‘we’re out’, confirming the decision of the electorate to vote to leave the European Union. However, rather than a sense of closure, the result opened up a number of other questions, not just ‘how did we get here?’ or ‘where are we going?’ but also, ‘what does this result mean for others?’.

Well over two years later, many of these questions remain unanswered. However, despite the air of uncertainty, there is something that is now apparent, Brexit was not an event, but a process and one that can only be properly understood by recognising the various factors that have shaped the context in which voters cast their ballots. It might be easy to imagine that the internal turbulence with the UK that has followed the Brexit process may quell the willingness of other European electorates to embrace the messages that so successfully managed to convince British voters to ignore every warning issued and every promise made by the remain campaign and instead to vote to leave the EU. However, in the course of our analysis, based upon individual-level survey data collected during a large comparative study, we found that any complacency about the potential for future political upsets should be tempered by the reality of the factors underpinning the causes of the Brexit vote. Moreover, our findings sound a warning for those currently campaigning in the run-up to the European Parliament elections taking place in May of this year.

Using data from a nationally representative survey conducted in 2016 for the Horizon 2020 TransSOL (Transnational Solidarity at Times of Crisis) study in eight European countries (Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Poland, Switzerland and the United Kingdom), we analysed answers from 11,865 respondents to the question: ‘Should the UK remain a member or leave the EU?’ Among the countries in our study we found that there existed three groups: firstly, there were those countries where those who were ‘pro-brexit’ outnumbered ‘remainers’ such as Switzerland (67.4%), France (60.1%) and Greece (59.1%); then, there were respondents based in countries where ‘remainers’ outnumbered ‘brexiters’ such as Denmark (58.3%), Germany (58.6.4%) and Poland (75.7%). Finally, a third group showed a more even split between ‘remainers’ and ‘brexiters’: Italy and the UK where brexiters were 50.6% of the respondents.

CC Public Domain

However, to better understand the factors shaping these preferences, we dug deeper into the socio-demographic characteristics and the political attitudes of the respondents using statistical analysis. Our results revealed that those who were more likely to support Brexit across the eight countries were to be in those social groups who have paid the highest costs for globalisation: that is those workers whose jobs can more easily be (or have been) taken away either by outsourcing or automation and whose skills and work experience make hard to convert into the new global ‘smart’ economy of services and IT employments. These groups perceived a threat emanating from the opening doors of the EU project, which meant to them more immigrants to compete with them for the few available jobs, rather than more opportunities for them to seek jobs across the EU open borders. And that was the case even more for those living in countries with a poorer economic outlook or in a context that had sustained the worst impacts of the global financial crisis in 2008, such as Greece and Italy. Therefore one of the freedoms most prized by supporters of the European Union, the freedom of movement of people, is perceived as a threat rather than an opportunity by many citizens across Europe.

Thus our findings reveal the difficulty of the EU as a project to speak to those segments of European societies who could have gained most from the development of a single market and a polity sharing the same democratic values and a failure of political leadership to defend them from the scarring effects of globalisation and the global financial crisis. Rather than capitulating to the anti-immigrant and nativist rhetoric of right-wing populists, European leaders who believe in the idea of a Social Europe must now be bold not just in their words but also in their actions. Our findings did indicate a way forward. In our analysis, those citizens with a strong sense of individual attachment to the European Union were least likely to support Brexit. At first, this may seem obvious, but on reflection, it speaks to a crucial question of what the EU represents for the ordinary citizens as they take the kids to school on a cold Paris morning or return home late from another shift in a Warsaw factory. Those with a progressive vision of the European Union have much to accomplish and the extent of that challenge will, once again, become clear in the European Parliament elections in May.

This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Brexit blog, nor the LSE. The article connected to the blog has been published in the American Behavioral Scientist.

Prof Simone Baglioni is a professor of politics at the Yunus Centre for Social Business and Health, Glasgow Caledonian University.

Dr Olga Biosca is a senior lecturer at the Yunus Centre for Social Business and Health, Glasgow Caledonian University. 

Dr Tom Montgomery is a postdoctoral researcher at the Yunus Centre for Social Business and Health, Glasgow Caledonian University. 

Brexit is making Europe stronger

caroline de gruyterThe EU27 are holding together throughout the twists and turns of Brexit. This is simply because it is in their interest to do so, writes Caroline de Gruyter (European Council on Foreign Relations).

Last month’s Brexit drama was such a compelling view that it even drew Germany football fans away from the Bayern Munich match against Liverpool – to the match playing out in the House of Commons. “Order!” they roared, like the speaker, John Bercow. “Oóórder!!”

tusk macron

Donald Tusk ad Emmanuel Macron clasp hands at the European Council meeting on 22 March 2019. Photo: European Council President via a CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0 licence

This is Brexit for many Europeans: entertainment. It can be much more exciting than football, soap operas, or talk shows. There is a parallel with the Greek crisis. At the time, some people could not get enough of parliamentary debates in Athens. They watched them on television like addicts. Crooked politicians dismantling each other’s lies; a prime minister changing opinion and strategy every week. All the Shakespearean characters were there. We all had strong opinions. Which, of course, were self-indulgent: thank God this happened to the Greeks and not to us.

With all due respect to those disadvantaged by Brexit or the euro crisis – what is fascinating is that it does not really matter what happens in Athens or London. It is mainly theatre. Perhaps this is why the British let themselves go to such an extent, even with the whole world watching: they know that what will happen is inconsequential. UK politicians can make as many U-turns and pirouettes as they fancy, because ultimately they know they are a country leaving a huge bloc of ever-quibbling member states that, however stubbornly, all stick to one common goal: to protect European institutions and EU rules from harm. This is why it is Brussels and not London that, at every step along the Brexit road, has determined the conditions. The latest example of this is the 27 European leaders rejecting the British prime minister’s request for an extension of the Brexit deadline of 30 June. By means of reply they imposed their own timeline, which she had to accept.

Of course, the British do have choices, but only within a bandwidth defined by the 27. The EU politely receives and considers every infeasible plan coming from London, like a ‘benevolent hegemon’ careful not to step on its small neighbour’s toes. But if such a plan hinders the EU, the 27 reject it. This is what happened recently with the bizarre ‘honesty boxes’ that the UK government proposed to put along the Irish border in case of no deal. Traders were supposed to declare their own goods, on a voluntary basis, in those boxes. This, London argued, would make border checks in Ireland unnecessary. But it seemed that EU officials had read the extensive literature about smuggling on the British Isles better than some of their British colleagues. The EU has to protect its single market. If not, it will collapse. So the 27 did not even consider the proposal.

So all in all, the Brexit story tells us a lot about the EU. Predictions continue that the EU will implode, explode, or otherwise disappear – but the reverse seems to be happening. It is becoming stronger. This is not because it has dictatorial tendencies or everyone has suddenly become Europhile, but for the simple reason that 27 member states have an interest in this being so. For this reason they survived the euro crisis, the migration crisis, and Brexit so far.

To be sure, the EU has major problems, but its member know too that the international set-up has changed. They foresee a looming battle between superpowers. The United States, China, and Russia are all circling the EU and European governments are starting to fear for the future of their peace, their riches, and their way of life.

This is why France and Germany are now working on what Constanze Stelzenmüller of the Brookings Institution calls “a fourth story for Europe”. She writes: “The first story was about peace; the second, prosperity; and the third, democratic transformation. This fourth story is about the protection of what Macron terms “civilization” and [CDU-party leader] Kramp-Karrenbauer calls the “European way of life”: representative democracy, the rule of law, individual freedom and a social market economy.” In short, this is about preserving the achievements of three-quarters of a century on a continent previously ridden by war. This explains why EU countries are trying to strengthen the eurozone,and are planning to set up a European Security Council and introduce better monitoring of external borders.

The prerequisites to make the “fourth” story successful are already built into the federal structure of the EU. Its backbone are the institutions and the common rules. No one fancies exits any more. Even the staunchest Eurosceptics have changed their minds. Now they want to be elected to the European Parliament, send commissioners to Brussels, and fill EU courts with judges. They have understood that if you cannot abandon or escape European institutions, you must try to control them.

They have finally grasped something that the Swiss and Norwegians have experienced for a long time but the Brexiteers, absorbed with themselves and their jolly plans, failed to see: European institutions are solid and powerful, shaping events and structures far beyond the EU.

This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Brexit blog, nor the LSE. It first appeared at the European Council on Foreign Relations blog.

Caroline de Gruyter is a Council Member of the European Council on Foreign Relations and an author and journalist based in Oslo.

‘It’s Westminster’s fault’. Political identities and blame attribution in devolved systems

In devolved systems, people may be unsure about which government does what and so who is responsible for policy outcomes. Sandra León and Lluís Orriols use a survey experiment on responsibility attribution surrounding the NHS in Scotland and Wales, and point to the role of partisanship and identity as cognitive guides in attributing credit and blame.

A Scotsman’s reader recently sent a letter to the newspaper titled “Don’t blame the SNP, blame Westminster austerity” and which included the following statement:

Years of austerity have made it difficult for the SNP government to be effective. Blame Westminster for difficulties in maintaining good NHS services, meeting environmental targets and caring for young and old. If you think public sector standards are bad here, you need to visit England more often. (Letters section, The Scotsman, 6/03/2019)

Blame attribution on policy outcomes is a controversial issue in democratic theory. One of the most celebrated promises of representative democracy is that free, competitive, and fair elections should enhance good government. The mechanism goes as follows: as incumbents may anticipate the electoral costs associated to deviating from the interests of the electorate, they will end up being responsive to voters’ demands in order to avoid electoral punishment.

However, elections can only effectively discipline politicians if voters can discern to what extent incumbents are responsible for policy outcomes, and that capacity varies according to the institutional context. Devolution is one of the institutional characteristics in a political system that complicates clarity of responsibility, as there are different levels of governments responsible for different policy areas and, in turn, potentially blameable for policy outcomes.

Think about healthcare. Although the NHS is a devolved power, the Scotsman’s reader considered that Westminster was responsible for poor healthcare services. This posits an interesting question: why are some individuals more prone to accuse Westminster than Holyrood? What are the determinants of blame attribution? The aim of our investigation is precisely to shed some light on how citizens end up attributing responsibility for policy outcomes in federal or decentralised systems.

We argue that vertical fragmentation of powers which characterises devolved settings provides an opportunity structure for individuals to engage in a blame-attribution game between the different levels of government. Our hypothesis is that political identities play a key role in blame-attribution. We claim that citizens are not neutral in their judgements, but filter them through a group-serving bias: giving credit for good performance to the group they identify with, and blaming the out-group for poor outcomes. Although research has studied the role of partisanship as a source of attribution bias, it has largely ignored another salient identity in politics: the national one.

In our investigation we try to test to what extent individuals’ bias in responsibility assignments respond to their in-group preferences, namely party affiliation and national identity. Indeed, according to our expectation the Scotsman reader would probably be someone who is emotionally attached to the SNP and (or) to Scottish identity.

In order to test our expectations we conducted survey experiments on responsibility attribution for the NHS in Scotland and Wales in the run-up to the 2015 general election. The experiment consisted of randomly providing a positive or negative statement made by experts about changes in healthcare outcomes, followed by a question about who is mainly responsible for the change. More specifically, the positive and negative treatments were worded as follows (positive treatment in brackets): “Many experts say that healthcare in Scotland/Wales has generally worsened [improved] over the last year; for example the waiting times for patients in urgent services are now longer [shorter] and time allocated to patients in primary care has decreased [increased]”.

Respondents were then asked to locate on a 7-point scale the degree of responsibility of the central and regional governments (being 1 regional government and 7 central government).

Our findings show that both party identification and national identity are drivers of attributions of responsibility in Scotland and Wales. Our results also indicate that partisanship has a more prominent and encompassing effect than national identity. Some of the empirical findings are summarized in Figure 1.

Figure 1. The effect of party identification and national identity on responsibility attribution for NHS outcomes

Note: The figure shows the mean differences on the NHS responsibility scale (1-regional authorities to 7-central authorities) between regional and central government partisans (top line) and between British and Scottish/Welsh identity. The spikes indicate the 95% confidence intervals.

The two graphs above show the differences in attribution of responsibility between individuals who identify with regional incumbent party(ies) (we label them as regional government partisans) and individuals who identify with incumbent parties at the central level (central government partisans).

Results are consistent with the claim that citizens make responsibility assignments that are coherent with their party alignment. But this only occurs for the negative treatment only. Individuals who identify with parties other than the Conservative Party or the Liberal Democrats (that formed the central incumbent coalition at the time of the experiment) hold the central government more responsible for poor NHS outcomes than those identified with the Conservative Party or the Liberal Democrats. In summary, empirical evidence suggests that people are more willing to filter responsibility assignments through the lenses of partisanship when things go wrong.

The two bottom graphs in Figure 1 show that differences in responsibility attribution between those more or only identified with the region and those who feel mainly British are only significant for the negative treatment and for the Scottish sample. In Wales, attribution of responsibility for the results of the NHS is not significantly moderated by national identity, regardless of the positive or negative nature of the treatment. Overall, our investigation indicates that it is partisanship, and not national identity, the most important in-group bias driving responsibility assignments.

These results have important implications for the operation of representative democracy and electoral accountability. If voters filter their responsibility judgements through the lenses of partisanship and national identity, incumbents may end up being rewarded or punished by the electorate in a way that is unrelated to policy outcomes. As a result, the incentives of politicians to be responsive to the electorate’s preferences may ultimately fade away.

Our findings also have important implications for the current debate on British devolution. Constitutional amendments since the late 1990s have turned the UK into one of the most heterogeneous institutional settings amongst European countries. The ongoing nature of the process of devolution in the UK, illustrated by recent reforms in Wales and Scotland as well as by the process of English devolution to local combined authorities, will certainly complicate responsibility assignments. How will British citizens cope with that complexity? Our research indicates that partisan alignments and national identity will very likely act as cognitive guides for individuals in an increasingly complex institutional setting.


Note: the above draws on the authors’ published work in Electoral Studies.

About the Authors

Sandra León is Senior Lecturer at that University of York.



Lluís Orriols is Associate Professor at University Carlos III, Madrid.




All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science. Featured image credit: Pixabay (Public Domain).

Brexit lessons from the Silesian backstop of 1919-25

thea don-simeonThe Northern Irish backstop proposal is complex – but it is not unprecedented, writes Thea Don-Siemion (LSE). The Treaty of Versailles established arrangements to prevent a hard border between Germany and Poland in Silesia. It failed, becoming a flashpoint in the relationship between the two countries. Even a permanent backstop is a poorer guarantor of peace in Northern Ireland than remaining in the EU.

With her withdrawal agreement crushed in Parliament, Theresa May went to Brussels to demand a time limit on the contentious Irish customs backstop intended to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland. The EU poured cold water on the Prime Minister’s request, holding firm to its position that a time-limited backstop would be a “complex and unprecedented arrangement”, and thus unworkable.

upper silesia

A 1921 German poster urges Upper Silesia to ‘stay German’. Image: Wikimedia Commons (Muzem Historii Katowic). Public domain

Theresa May’s proposal is certainly complex, and it may be unworkable. What it is not, however, is unprecedented. Modern European history holds at least one close historical parallel to the Irish backstop: the arrangements under the Treaty of Versailles of 1919 to prevent a hard border between Germany and Poland in the Upper Silesian industrial region. The implications of this episode for the prospects of May’s proposed arrangement are not encouraging. The ‘Silesian backstop’ was intended to provide a grace period during which Poland and Germany could negotiate a permanent agreement regulating cross-border trade in Upper Silesia. Instead, it resulted in no deal, inflamed ethnic tensions and sparked a ruinous tariff war. Far from promoting Polish-German reconciliation, it added kindling to the fire that was to erupt in the second world war.

Upper Silesia in the wake of the first world war bears many parallels with Northern Ireland today. Ruled by the Polish crown in the Middle Ages, the region had over the centuries become subject to German settlement and rule, a process which reached its height after the partitions of Poland in the late 18th century. Sitting atop one of Europe’s great coal deposits, the region developed during the 1800s into Germany’s second great centre for heavy industry. German capital and (chiefly Protestant) German migrants became enmeshed in a Polish (chiefly Catholic) rural economy, heavily interdependent and without a clear ethnographic border between the two communities.

When Poland regained its independence in 1918, the question of how to divide Upper Silesia between Poland and Germany became a pressing matter on the agenda of the Versailles peace conference. Any conceivable border in the densely populated region would sever supply and production chains, separate workers from their places of employment, and even cut across mine galleries deep underground, making resources liable for tariffs before they even reached the pit-head.

The participants in the Versailles peace conference recognised the magnitude of economic harm and potential for political turmoil that would result from a hard border in Upper Silesia. They worked out a compromise between the positions of Germany and Poland, both of which wanted the full industrial region in a union with themselves. The question of where to draw the border between Poland and Germany would be settled by plebiscite, and the final economic settlement left to a trade treaty negotiated between Poland and Germany. As neither of these actions could be implemented immediately, the Treaty of Versailles required Poland to “permit… the exportation to Germany of the products of the mines in any part of Upper Silesia transferred to Poland… free from all export duties or other charges or restrictions on exportation”. A subsequent convention modified the terms: the ‘Silesian backstop’ would henceforth expire earlier, at the end of June 1925, but would cover the full range of industrial goods produced in the part of Upper Silesia under Polish sovereignty. To prevent abuses of the backstop provisions, Poland consented to an internal customs frontier between its part of Upper Silesia and the remainder of the country, and a measure of parliamentary and fiscal devolution to the Province of Upper Silesia.

The high hopes at Versailles that the compromises brokered on Upper Silesia would be respected by both parties and would serve as a foundation for stable relations between Poland and Germany quickly proved misplaced. Far from conciliating the two countries, the division of Upper Silesia sparked intense violence, as nationalists on both sides jostled to maximise their gains at the expense of the other. Though the backstop was intended to facilitate negotiations, its time-limited nature intensified the conflict as partisans on both sides sought to insure themselves against the fallout of ‘no deal’. Hostilities swiftly broke out. Less than two months after the Treaty was signed in June 1919, the Polish population staged an uprising in order to force a revision of the settlement in Poland’s favour. Though this uprising was quickly crushed by German Freikorps paramilitaries, it was followed by two further outbreaks of violence.

The Silesian uprisings, and the repressions that followed them, forced the revision of the plebiscite held in 1921 and undermined the democratic legitimacy of the Upper Silesian peace process. Nor was the damage confined to Upper Silesia: the violence proved corrosive to political stability in both Warsaw and Berlin. On the German side, the reliance on paramilitaries to suppress the Polish risings cemented the place of the anti-system far right within the mainstream of the Weimar Republic’s politics. In Poland, Marshal Józef Piłsudski used the accusation of being ‘soft on Silesia’ to force the resignation of a democratically elected government in June 1922, ushering in a year and a half of political chaos and paving the way for his eventual coup d’état. In both countries, the decision to provide material support to a side in the conflict led to fiscal overreach and contributed to the emergence of hyperinflation.

Under such inflamed circumstances, attempts to negotiate a permanent trade agreement between Poland and Germany were doomed. As the end date of the backstop neared, the German side, which hoped to use Poland’s dependence on Germany as a market for its exports to force Poland to revise its borders in Silesia and the hated ‘corridor’ in its favour, engaged in a campaign of stalling and stonewalling in an attempt to ‘run down the clock’. When the German side finally came to the table, only a few months before the deadline, the gap between the Polish and German positions was too vast to be bridged. Both sides, especially Germany with its greater economic leverage, engaged in brinkmanship, upping the stakes of the negotiations to induce the other side to fold. Finally, the Germans imposed a quota on Polish coal that amounted to a de facto embargo; the Poles retaliated in kind. The backstop lapsed without a deal being reached.

Poland and Germany remained at economic loggerheads to the last days of the Weimar Republic. The bitter relations resulting from the failure of the Silesian backstop cast a shadow over European stability in the later 1920s. The rights of Polish and German minorities on opposite sides of the Silesian border became a dominant presence on the agenda of the League of Nations in Geneva. Even when the economic strains of the Great Depression brought Polish and German commercial delegations together again, a resolution proved elusive. While the two parties were able with great effort to conclude a trade agreement— better than no deal, but much more limited than the provisions of the ‘backstop’— the treaty met with a hostile response in the Reichstag, galvanising nationalist and Nazi opposition to the ‘compromised’ Weimar system. It was never ratified. Ironically, it took the dictatorial initiative of Adolf Hitler, whose rise owed much to the animosities unleashed by the Silesian conflict, to bring the Polish-German trade war to an end.

The experience of the Silesian backstop in the troubled period after the First World War has unsettling implications for the proposed Irish backstop in the troubled period after the global financial crisis and Brexit. If history can teach us anything about current events, it is that Theresa May’s proposal for a time-limited Irish backstop, whatever its attractions in terms of maintaining the unity of the Conservative Party, is doubly dangerous and should be resisted by the EU. The Silesian backstop of 1919-1925 did not prevent a no-deal outcome, but only delayed it. Worse, because no deal remained on the table, the time limit on the backstop fanned the flames of the inter-ethnic strife by incentivising both sides to secure for themselves a position of strength in time to influence the final settlement.

The lessons of the history of Europe between the two wars have already been learnt once before. The signatories of the Treaty of Versailles vested their hopes for peace in a system of national self-determination, state sovereignty, controlled immigration with unenforceable minority treaties to protect nationals caught on the wrong side, and a commitment to free trade in theory that gave way to protectionism once the hard choices of structural change became apparent. The combination proved explosive. When their successors, at the end of a second ruinous war, once again confronted the problem of another highly interdependent industrial region split by national borders and ethnic divisions, they did not put their faith in backstops. Rather, they founded the European Coal and Steel Community, which became the European Union. One lesson from the Silesian backstop is that a time-limited backstop in Ireland has all the markings of a dangerous chimera. A stronger lesson is that even a permanent backstop is a poorer guarantor of peace and prosperity in Northern Ireland than remaining in the EU.

This post represents the view of the author and not those of the Brexit blog, nor the LSE.

Thea Don-Siemion is a PhD student in the Department of Economic History at the LSE.

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