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Farage´s Law of Unintended Consequences

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May’s elections to the European Parliament continue to have important consequences far beyond Brussels. The first lesson was about the rise of the anti-EU, sometimes extremist parties in numerous major states. Marine le Pen’s National Front took fully 25% of the vote in France and Nigel Farage’s UK Independence Party defeated both the Tories and Labour to win an historic victory over the traditional parties. Syriza did well in Greece, Spain had the emergence of an insurgent leftist party called Podemos and even steadfast Germany raised eyebrows with the appearance of Alternativ für Deutschland (AfD), which is anti-Euro, though not anti-EU.

The second lesson began immediately after the ballots were counted. For the first time, European leaders had “committed” themselves to allowing the new European Commission President to be determined by the coalition that received the most overall votes. Previously, the governments of the member states decided who would be the Commission President through closed door negotiation and horse trading, but it was felt that the new electoral means would be more transparent and democratic. This is undoubtedly true; but the proposal will only work if everyone agrees to it, because there is no legal mechanism to enforce the voters’ choice.

The coalition that won the most votes, though not a majority, is the center-right European People’s Party-Christian Democrats. The candidate for the EPP is Jean-Claude Juncker, a former Prime Minister of Luxembourg and long-time power broker in the EU’s back corridors. Mr. Juncker should therefore be the next EU Commission President; a point with which most of the losing coalitions are in agreement. No problem, right? Enter David Cameron: now we have a problem.

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Mr Cameron objects to a Juncker Presidency, for a number of reasons. Firstly, Mr. Cameron is now vehemently defending the legal right[1] of the member states to decide who the President will be. Apparently, the erosion of this right is now intolerable, whereas six months ago it was not. He was apparently asleep or on holiday when member states decided to make the Commission job subject to a popular vote. Secondly, Mr. Juncker is a European Federalist, deeply committed to “ever closer union” and deeply opposed to making exceptions for the British. That does not sit well with Mr. Cameron, whose Tory party is committed to exactly the opposite propositions. In fact, the only British party that outright supports Mr. Juncker’s candidacy is Nigel Farage’s UKIP, precisely because it will make it easier for him to get the United Kingdom to exit the “monstrous EU”. There is a reason Nigel Farage has been smiling so much lately.

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Yet behind the stated reasons, it is domestic political concerns that are driving the Prime Minister’s actions. The EU parliamentary elections may not be wholly comparable to general elections, but they are an accurate enough forecast to have struck fear into the hearts of more than one party in power. In the United Kingdom, the rise of UKIP has largely been attributed to dissatisfaction with the EU. UKIP argues that the EU is overly bureaucratic; the EU is overly intrusive; EU regulations and competition cost Britain jobs; EU immigration rules are allowing a flood of unskilled workers into the country and overwhelming public services. Mr. Farage demands that the United Kingdom take back ownership of its own laws, market and destiny; and he proposes to accomplish this by turning the EU back into a free trade zone with none of the bureaucracy in Brussels (much less Strasbourg). All of this has resonated well with the British – especially English – public.

Well enough that the Liberal Democrats ceased to be a political force and almost failed to return any delegates to the EU Parliament. The LibDem leader and number two in the government, Nick Clegg, had been an outspoken defender of the EU going so far as to debate Mr. Farage before the elections on the BBC. His performance did not help him and the massacre of the Liberal Democrats was forecast for weeks before the votes were actually counted. Mr. Clegg was an unfortunate victim of British politics – he said what many “moderate” Tories think, and what most Labour politicians believe, but which no one else was actually willing to say in public. Labour’s Ed Milliband had bent backwards far enough to actually support the PM’s call for a referendum on staying in the EU, calling it the “democratic option”, a position that is radically different from that of every Labour leader before him. And Mr. Cameron was not going to expose his jugular to his backbenchers by supporting the EU; so it remained for Mr. Clegg to be the noble Roman and fall on his sword.

The Tories were expected to perform poorly in these elections, but the proof of it, and the fact that they lost not only to Labour but also to UKIP, has shocked Mr. Cameron into action. What better action than bashing the EU? And what better manner – what a God-gifted manner – than to defend British rights and British interests against “yet another power grab” by Brussels (one that he had previously agreed to)? So Mr. Cameron has drawn a line in the sand over Mr. Juncker’s Presidency, put Angela Merkel in a bind, and set fire to a fuse which may explode in unintended ways.

Mr. Cameron’s ultimatum is as blunt as it is clear: if Mr. Juncker is made President over British objections, then the EU referendum may be called early. This is an extremely dangerous position to take: for one thing, there is no backing down for Mr. Cameron. To do so after so public and explicit a threat would be to garrote himself and hand the keys to 10 Downing Street over to Mr. Farage in a red velvet bow. It would be so bad, that Mr. Cameron’s government might not even survive to call a general election next year: his own party might revolt and join in a vote of no confidence, with which the government would legally be obliged to resign and call for early elections.

Going through with the threat is equally bad, depending on your point of view. It is assumed that Mr. Cameron does not actually want Britain to leave the EU; his tactic is to use the referendum as a lever with which to pry a few concessions from Europe while at the same time placating anti-EU Tories and voters who might other join UKIP. With concessions in hand, he can then hold the referendum and argue in favor of staying with a clear conscience and – hopefully – no detrimental political consequences. This assumes that the EU is willing to concede some face saving measures to the British; something which becomes very improbable under a Juncker presidency: a key reason Mr. Cameron would prefer another candidate to succeed. But if the referendum is held now, without any concessions at all having been negotiated and with the bitterness from losing the Juncker stand-off still in British mouths, the probability of a British vote to exit the EU becomes very high indeed.

This scenario could have big impacts across Europe that go beyond the unknown consequences of a British withdrawal. Imagine the following scenario:

  • Cameron loses the debate on Juncker and calls for an early referendum on the UK staying in the EU, say in October.
  • Without a deal, the “no” vote is likely to carry the day;
  • The Scots are more supportive of remaining in the EU than their English neighbors. According to an Ipsos-Mori poll[2], 53% of Scots would vote to remain in the EU versus 34% who would vote to leave it.   If they stay with England and Wales in the Union, they are likely to leave the EU in October. Alex Salmond’s SNP gets a decisive boost before the September 17th referendum and Scotland declares independence;
  • The EU, in order to snub a highly disliked Cameron and reward the pro-EU Scots, decides that Scotland should be given automatic admission to the EU and fast-tracked on Euro membership to avoid economic disruption when the Scots are forced off the pound sterling;
  • In snubbing Cameron, the EU sets an inflammatory precedent that vindicates the assertion by Catalan separatists that EU and Euro admission would be automatic and inherit by states declaring independence from an EU member. This would very significantly boost the pro-independence vote in Catalonia ahead of their planned November 9th referendum; it would probably be decisive.  Madrid knows this too, which means that intervention by the Civil Guards to prevent a referendum from taking place would become even more likely than it is now.

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None of these events are fore-ordained of course, but they are all reasonable outcomes of a series of events that we can now see unfolding. None of them require great leaps of faith; they are all made possible by political shortsightedness, domestic political concerns, and the patch-work manner applied to so many situations in Europe since the crisis began. EU leaders are partly to blame, to be sure; but they are facing some unprecedented crises that EU institutions simply had never faced before and so they have been forced to make it up on the fly. Their response to the financial crisis has kept the EU together at the expense of the citizens of Southern Europe. A possible UK exit and Scottish independence are two more events that were never contemplated in the institutional framework and are just as likely to be handled in an ad hoc manner. Therein lays the risk of unintended consequences.

A decision on Mr. Juncker’s candidacy is expected this week during the European Council meeting on June 26th[3].

[1] The European Council, composed of the heads of state of the members, nominates the EU Commission President and the nomination is then approved or rejected by the Parliament.

[2] “Scots want EU referendum but would vote to stay in,” Ipsos Mori, 14 February 2013

[3] Spiegel staff, “Commission Crusade: Cameron Outmaneuvered in Battle over Juncker,” Der Spiegel, 19 June 2014

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