The EU Referendum: The EU Mirage

This is the first post in a Disorder forum on the EU referendum. Click here for the forum introduction with the links to the other posts.

Chris BickertonOur first guest author is Christopher J. Bickerton. Chris is University Lecturer in politics at POLIS and an Official Fellow at Queens’ College, Cambridge. He has taught at Oxford, the University of Amsterdam and Sciences Po in Paris. He is author of European Union Foreign Policy: From Effectiveness to Functionality (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), European Integration: From Nation-States to Member States (Oxford University Press, 2012) and, most recently, The European Union: A Citizen’s Guide (Penguin, 2016). Chris is a regular contributor to Le Monde Diplomatique and The Wall Street Journal, and has written for the Financial Times, New York Times and Foreign Affairs.


 When I am asked to describe the EU, I often say that it is a bit like a mirage. We all know how a mirage works. From far away, the image is clear and strong. As you get closer, it starts to wobble and shimmer until eventually, it disappears.

The EU is like that. Seen from national capitals, from London, Paris, Berlin, Rome, Bratislava or Madrid, it looks clear and distinct. It has its own institutions, its own buildings, even its own legal order. It can punish national governments for over-spending and close national banks. But as you get closer to Brussels, this image begins to wobble. Finally, when you are really up close, it disappears altogether.

What is left are our own national leaders – Merkel, Hollande, Renzi, Cameron – taking decisions between themselves in meetings closed to the general public. We also find our own civil servants and fonctionnaires filling the Thalys trains, the TGVs and the Eurostar, travelling from their own capitals to Brussels to take part in working group meetings that craft and shape EU legislation. Some power is delegated to EU institutions but it is closely policed by member states.

Traditional EU institutions, like the European Commission, have lost much of their power in recent decades, with a leading role played by the European Council which is made up of heads of state and government. Even an institution like the European Central Bank, with its shiny new headquarters in Frankfurt, is far weaker than many think. Its new powers were foisted onto it by national governments keen to distance themselves from the responsibility of solving the Eurozone’s economic and financial crisis.

Looking at the EU as a whole, we cannot say that it stands above its member states, dominating them and issuing orders that national governments must comply with. In fact, the EU is these member states. But why doesn’t it look that way? Continue reading

The EU Referendum: A Disorders Forum

In exactly one month, Britain will hold a referendum on its membership of the European Union, its first since 1975. So far, the debate on ‘Brexit’ has been risible, reflecting both the narrowness and myopia of contemporary politics, and the fact that the debate is being ‘led’ on both sides by conservatives lacking any positive vision of the future. Project Fear reigns supreme. Will your shopping be £4.32 more expensive or £3.16 cheaper if we leave? Will leaving the EU make it more or less likely that your granny will be killed by a criminal immigrant? Will leaving the EU send Britain’s ‘booming’ (!) economy into recession, or plunge Europe back into war and chaos?

This is particularly lamentable because the referendum is the most significant political decision that most British citizens will face in their lifetimes. Given the EU’s enormous influence, the referendum’s consequences will vastly outweigh that of any recent general election.

david-sapsted-10-d3-2015-7729-business-urged-to-get-involved-in-eu-debate-to-prevent-brexit_6043_t12

 This Disorder of Things forum tries to raise the tone, offering a detailed discussion of the pros and cons of Brexit and ‘Bremain’. Importantly, on the ‘Brexit’ side, you will not find the usual patriotic bluster of spitfire nationalism, but rather a progressive case for leaving the EU. Indeed, all of our contributors engage with the truly significant political principles at stake: democracy, sovereignty, accountability, peace, security, and freedom.

Our posts will be published daily over the coming week. Links will be added when the posts go live.

Chris Bickerton kicks off the forum by arguing that today’s EU is not a powerful, supranational body but a network of states that have been transformed from ‘nation states’, deriving their authority domestically, into ‘member states’, deriving their authority from transnational, inter-elite relationships. He argues for Brexit to intensify Britain’s ‘crisis of authority’, forcing a change of political direction.

Building on Chris’s work, my own two cents follow. I suggest analysing the EU through the lens of the politics of scale and state transformation. The EU, I suggest, emerged through the rescaling of governance to inter-elite networks insulated – by design – from popular control. Restoring that control has to involve leaving the EU and revitalising national democracy in an internationalist direction.

Next, Toni Haastrup tackles the Brexiteers from a postcolonial perspective. Taking aim at the spitfire nationalism of the Brexit campaign, she argues their suggestion that UK power and influence would be revivsed by Brexit is based on wilful ignorance and delusions of imperial grandeur.

Next, Ana Juncos and Gilberto Algar-Faria argue that the UK’s security interests are best served by staying inside the EU. Brexit would only weaken the EU’s capacity to deal with the very problems that Britain is trying to escape, like irregular migration and the instability created by the Eurozone crisis.

This view is disputed by Philip Cunliffe. He offers a trenchant critique of the claim that the EU has created peace in Europe and weakening the EU will revive conflict. Nationalism and war have been elite-manufactured problems, he maintains, not the result of popular will. ‘Vote remain or return to war’ is simply blackmail from an elite that, even today, just loves warmongering.

Finally, Catherine Goetze responds to the pro-Brexit posts by warning of the dangers of restoring national democracy through a campaign led by right-wing forces. Drawing on historical parallels, she warns that Brexit might strengthen nationalism across Europe, with very negative consequences.

Mind the Gap: Evaluating the Success of Sanctions

This is the third in a series of posts on Lee Jones’ Societies Under Siege: Exploring How International Economic Sanctions (Do Not) Work. We are delighted to welcome Dr Clara Portela,  she is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Singapore Management University. She is the author of the monograph European Union Sanctions and Foreign Policy, for which she received the 2011 THESEUS Award for Promising Research on European Integration. She recently participated in the High Level Review of United Nations sanctions, in the EUISS Task Force on Targeted Sanctions and has consulted for the European Parliament on several occasions.

A further response will follow from  Katie Attwell, followed by a response from Lee. You can find Lee’s original post here and Elin Hellquist’s here.


The volume undoubtedly makes a key contribution to the field – indeed, one that was sorely needed: an evaluation of how sanctions interact with the economic and political dynamics in the target society, and more specifically, how they affect domestic power relations. This agenda is not entirely new in sanctions scholarship. It had been wisely identified by Jonathan Kirshner in a famous article as far back as in 1997. However, having pointed to the need to ascertain how sanctions affect the internal balance of power between ruling elites and political opposition, and the incentives and disincentives they faced, this analytical challenge had not been taken up by himself or any other scholar so far. The book also contributes to a highly promising if still embryonic literature: that of coping strategies by the targets, briefly explored in works by Hurd or Adler-Nissen.

Departing from the idea that whether sanctions can work can only be determined by close study of the target society and estimating the economic damage required to shift conflict dynamics in a progressive direction, the study proposes a novel analytical framework: Social Conflict Analysis. The volume concludes that socio-political dynamics in the target society overwhelmingly determine the outcomes of sanctions episodes: “Where a society has multiple clusters of authority, resources, and power rather than a single group enjoying a monopoly, and where key groups enjoy relative autonomy from state power and the capacity for collective action, sanctions may stand some chance of changing domestic political trajectories. In the absence of these conditions, their leverage will be extremely limited” (p.182).

World of Sanctions

Source: Peterson Institute for International Economics

Continue reading

Why Syriza Failed

The following was originally posted on The Current Moment, a blog exploring contemporary politics and political economy in the West. Especially for those concerned with the Eurozone crisis and the impending British referendum on European Union membership, it is a must read!

*    *    *

Recent events in Greece have baffled many observers. At the end of June, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras walked out of talks with Greece’s creditors, calling a snap referendum on their proposals. It appeared to be crunch time. Tspiras denounced the EU’s ‘blackmail-ultimatum’, urging ‘the Hellenic people’ to defend their ‘sovereignty’ and ‘democracy’, while EU figures warned a ‘no’ vote would mean Greece leaving the Euro. Yet, even during the referendum campaign, while ostensibly pushing for a ‘no’ vote, Tsipras offered to accept the EU’s terms with but a few minor tweaks. And no sooner had the Greek people apparently rejected EU-enforced austerity than their government swiftly agreed to pursue harsher austerity measures than they had just rejected, merely in exchange for more negotiations on debt relief. This bizarre sequence of events can only be understood as a colossal political failure by Syriza. Elected in January to end austerity, they will now preside over more privatisation, welfare cuts and tax hikes.

When nai means yes

How can we explain this failure? I argue three factors were key. First, the terrible ‘good Euro’ strategy pursued by Syriza, the weakness of which should have been apparent from the outset. The second factor, which shaped the first, is the overwhelmingly pro-EU sentiment among Greek citizens and elites, which created a strong barrier to ‘Grexit’ in the absence of political leadership towards independence. Third, the failure of the pro-Grexit left, including within Syriza, to win Syriza and the public over to a pro-Grexit position.

Continue reading

Governing Borderless Threats

Southeast Asia’s recent Rohingya refugee crisis, and the parallel and still-unfolding horrors in the Mediterranean, are stark and tragic reminders of how the nature of international security has changed in recent decades. Traditionally, security involved building military strength to deter or repel attacks by other states. Today, beyond a tiny handful of ‘flashpoints’, so-called ‘non-traditional’ security issues dominate: irregular migration, drug trafficking, terrorism, piracy, pandemic disease, environmental degradation, transnational organised crime and cybersecurity – to name but a few. How are states and international organisations dealing with these challenges, and what does this tell us about global politics today?

The latest “boat people” crisis

Continue reading

Post-Election Politics: Where Next for Britain?

Following the Radical Left Assembly #2 last weekend, Nivi and Kerem caught up with Luke Cooper to discuss the implications of the Conservative Party majority for British politics. What does the election result tell us about the political composition of Britain? What is the significance of the Tory pledge for a referendum on the EU? And what future is there for a politics of the Left?