Ideas UK referendum

David Cameron’s lost opportunity at the European Parliament

While paying lip-service to "more democracy" for the European Union, the British Prime Minister has preferred exclusive meetings behind closed doors to a real debate in front of MEPs and European public opinion.

Published on 18 February 2016 at 12:39

It should have been this week’s great European moment for the media: David Cameron at the European Parliament. But sadly the Prime Minister turned down the Parliament’s invitation to speak. Instead he was happy just to meet the heads of each parliamentary faction. What a shame, given that Brexit is an issue for all European citizens.

David Cameron refused to take part in this democratic moment for two probable reasons. First, because he did not want British television channels to cherrypick a likely confrontation with Nigel Farage. This would have placed the anti-European leader of UKIP on a pedestal at a time when his party is enjoying a (slight) popularity boost in the UK. Next, because Cameron would have been attacked by most MEPs without being able to respond immediately afterwards, as is the case in the House of Commons.

But it also makes a lot of sense. Cameron has based his renegotiation strategy on bilateral discussions away from the public eye. Admittedly, this tactic has involved more than a little blackmail: let me have fundamental changes or I’ll campaign to leave the European Union, his argument goes. This kind of approach can only take place in the sheltered realm of diplomatic discussions.

Unfortunately for all of us citizens, bilateral negotiations kill off any public debate. In any representative democracy there are, of course, closed negotiations. But time for public debate means the final document presented at the end of negotiations has had a chance to evolve. Here, this is no longer possible: if national leaders, worn down over a marathon negotiation session, accept a highly problematic point, there can be no going back. This is exactly how diplomatic negotiations and international treaties work. But there will no longer be any space for a European public debate: national leaders will have squeezed this out of existence.

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The lack of a European public debate

Greek Prime minister Alexis Tsipras’ visit to the European Parliament allowed for a real discussion and shed some light on the debate for people watching. His words were no longer warped through the lens of national media outlets. Normally, news from Greece would be chosen according to a set of national preoccupations rather than actually reflecting the Greek context. And the same thing was true of Tsipras himself. At the European Parliament he could finally address European citizens outside of Greece and put forward his own arguments without being constrained by Greek issue. It was a true moment of European democracy.

The absence of European public debate is one of the Union’s greatest weaknesses. There are effectively 28 national public spheres instead of one when it comes to discussing issues with a European dimension.

Brexit is a perfect example of this democratic deficit. The UK’s exit or continued membership of the EU affects all Europeans and not only British citizens. But the discussions are exclusively taking place between diplomats, away from the prying eyes of European citizens. A Europe-wide question has been, ultimately, brought within the borders of a single nation.

And this plays into the hands of the “Out” campaigners, since the debate is only happening from a British (or even just English) perspective. People are only talking about British interests when they should be asking what the consequences would be for non-British EU citizens living in the UK. Countries in Central Europe have highlighted this, but also from a national perspective to protect “their” citizens.

If the idea of Europe is in its death throes, it is thanks to the nationalisation of public debate.

Translated from the French by Simon Pickstone

Cartoon by Nicolas Vadot

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