The hostage crisis in Algeria forced British Prime Minister David Cameron to delay a long-awaited speech outlining his government’s view of the future of British involvement in the European Union. Nevertheless, in a truncated address over the weekend, Cameron asserted that the European Union is undergoing a process of “fundamental change,” and that a central component of that change must be addressing the “gap between the EU and tis citizens which has grown dramatically in recent years and which represents a lack of democratic accountability and consent that is—yes—felt particularly acutely in Britain. If we can’t address these challenges,” Cameron stated, “the danger is that European will fail and the British people will drift toward the exit.”
Cameron stopped short of calling for a referendum on British membership in the European Union, as some in his party had been calling for. Nevertheless, the thought that a sitting British Prime Minister would contemplate leaving the E.U. has caused concern on both sides of the Atlantic. According to the British Mail Online, President Barack Obama called Prime Minister Cameron, urging him to express his commitment to British membership in the EU and noting that the European Union has spread “peace, prosperity and security” around the world.
The idea that the European Union suffers a democratic deficit is longstanding. A democratic deficit occurs when organizations (like the United Nations or the European Union) fall short of living up to the principles of democracy and representation to which they are ostensibly committed. In the case of international organizations like the EU, the relative weakness of popularly-elected institutions (the European Parliament) vis-à-vis the power of the major players (the European Commission and the European Council) often lead to assertions of a democratic deficit. Yet the structure of the European Union privileges the position of Member States relative to the position of European citizens. The most powerful institutions within the European Union, in other words, are beholden to the governments of Europe rather than directly to its people.
So why all the fuss?
Cameron is likely responding more to domestic British politics than to changing dynamics or concerns at the European level. Certainly the ongoing economic crisis in Europe is a reason for concern. The threat of a Eurozone meltdown (led by Greece, but fueled also by Spain, Portugal, and perhaps even France) give reason for pause. But Britain is not a member of the Eurozone and consequently maintains considerable economic and fiscal policy autonomy.
Rather, the growing influence of euroscepticism on the domestic British political scene likely plays a greater role. More specifically three trends are driving policy reform. First, the traditional pro-free trade elements of the Conservative party have increasingly been challenged by more Eurosceptic elements, including the Cornerstone Group, which claims some fifty conservative MPs as members, including several members of the cabinet. Second, the rise of several small parties, including the UK Independence Party and the British National Party, have exacerbated these concerns. Finally, a broad level of euroscepticism appears to be gaining support among the British electorate. According to recent public opinion polling, half the British population now supports British withdrawal from the European Union.
Importantly, the United Kingdom is not alone in this respect. Eurobarometer polling data show that popular support for EUY membership was waning across many EU member states, most notably in Latvia, Hungary, and the UK, in which all are home to a majority population opposing EU membership. Every EU member state now has at least one political party with an anti-EU platform.
All of this raises questions about the future of the European Union. What do you think? Does has European integration hit is high water mark? Are we now witnessing the beginning of the end of the EU? Or does all this talk of withdrawal merely represent politically maneuvering and bluster? Take the poll or leave a comment below and let us know what you think.