Is the only man that can keep the UK in the European Union actually Wayne Rooney?

Dan Hough

British Conservative prime minister David Cameron now appears to have agreed to the cornerstones of a deal that he hopes will see the British people vote to remain in the European Union. It’s not yet been confirmed, but it’s now looking increasingly likely that the residents of Blighty will get to make that call on 23rd June. Current opinion polls – assuming they are polling more accurately than they did in the 2015 UK General Election – tell us that, regardless of the precise nature of the deal that Cameron ultimately secures, it will be a very close race. The Yes vote generally seems to be just ahead, but there are polls that say the contrary. Come what may, four months out and it is, to use a cliché, still very much all to play for.

Given the closeness of the contest, it is worth asking: what might ultimately prove decisive in deciding the outcome? Academic research on referendums gives us a number of pointers.

On the one hand, it’s clear that decisions like this are not going to be purely about the minutiae of the deal that Cameron and co finally agree on. The majority of British people won’t read the text and a fair few who do will have a tough job in making sense of it – EU legalese is not exactly a rip-roaring read. So what will Brits use as pointers in helping them make their decisions?

Mark Franklin, Cees van der Eijk and Michael Marsh, in one of the seminal pieces on voting behaviour in referendums (see here), argue that the standing of the government of the day is in reality the key thing to watch out for. They argue that “referenda in parliamentary systems” are “subject to a ‘lockstep’ phenomenon” where the actual outcome is “tied to the popularity of the government in power” (Franklin et. al., 1995: 101).  They go further, claiming that this remains so even when the subject of the referendum has little to do with the reasons for the government’s (un)popularity. Not so much a case of it being ‘the economy, stupid’, but rather ‘it’s the government, silly!’ 

So, Franklin and co would expect Cameron to come through. As they rather bluntly note, “popular governments will get votes in favour of referenda that they propose” (1995: 102), meaning that pro-EUers can, given that Cameron’s government is still doing well in the opinion polls, begin to sleep just a little easier at night.

Not everyone, however, completely buys in to Franklin et. al.’s argument. Aleks Szczerbiak and Paul Taggart (see here), in an award-winning conclusion to their special issue of West European Politics on referendums in Europe in 2004, talk of the importance of “cues provided by elites”, but one shouldn’t neglect the underlying trends of the population at large (Szczerbiak and Taggart, 2004: 753). Indeed, they clearly end up in a slightly different place to Franklin et. al. when they state that “the outcomes of referendums are neither the exclusive preserve of masses or of elites” (2004: 753).

Szczerbiak and Taggart use evidence from the referendums held across Central and Eastern Europe on EU membership to illustrate this, pointing out, for example, that non-political figures can have small but significant influences on campaigns. And these influences will obviously be all the more significant when the result looks like it’ll be close (Szczerbiak and Taggart, 2004: 767).

Assuming that Szczerbiak and Taggart are right and the behaviour of those outside the political class can have an effect, then it might also be worth noting one other thing about the proposed 23rd June date of the referendum. And for that one needs to look back at a bit of recent history.

In 1970 the then Labour prime minister Harold Wilson was all set to be returned to Downing Street in a June election. He had been consistently ahead in the polls and in the run up to polling day there was, despite a little bit of economic turbulence, confidence that the Conservatives under Ted Heath would be successfully defeated.

Yet Labour lost. The reasons for this were much debated at the time, with Wilson himself coming up with a decidedly left-field explanation. The 1970 election took place in the middle of the 1970 football World Cup, staged in Mexico. And, England, as defending champions, were all set to do well. Alf Ramsey’s side came out of their group intact and ended up – as so often seems to be the case – locking horns with Germany. This time in the quarter-final in the sweltering heat of Leon. England looked to be cruising to the semi-final, leading 2-0 with little more than 20 minutes to play.

Alf Ramsey, conscious of the hot and humid conditions, subsequently took off Bobby Charlton to save his (by now aging) legs. Things immediately started to go wrong; Peter Bonetti, the stand in goalkeeper (Gordon Banks, England’s legendary keeper of the 1960s, had been taken ill in the morning) made a couple of now infamous mistakes and before anyone really knew it England were out of the tournament.

So what? Well, the game took place just four days before the UK’s general election.  The crushing nature of England’s defeat seemed to be of more significance to many than an election to see which white, middle-class man would lead the country.  Indeed, Roy Jenkins, Wilson’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, was reported (see here) to be bamboozled by having to deal with questions about whether Alf Ramsay or Peter Bonetti was the bigger national scoundrel (the answer according to this football fan, for the record, is that both of them were to blame!). Wilson himself noted that the national mood seemed to have changed, and the optimism that generally prevailed beforehand was shifting to a much more negative feeling of disgruntlement. A small number of government supporters, so the hypothesis went, subsequently lost enthusiasm for Labour and didn’t vote, whilst others went from giving Labour the benefit of any doubt to having had enough of them. The numbers involved were, again so the theory goes, not particularly large but they may have been large enough to help give momentum to a late swing.

In June 2016 England will be playing in the European Championships. Although England had a truly dismal 2014 World Cup finals (the less said about which the better), the side does appear to have been given a new lease of life. Young players such as Deli Alli, Ross Berkley, John Stones and Jamie Vardy represent a breath of fresh air, and ten wins out of ten (with 31 goals scored and just 3 conceded) in the qualifying group is clear evidence that all need no longer be doom and gloom. England, furthermore, have been drawn in a group from which they should qualify; Russia, Slovakia and Wales all represent challenges, but if England are serious about being a football mover and shaker, then Roy Hodgson’s men really should progress to the knock out stages.

The final group game against Slovakia takes place on 20 June. Just three days before the proposed date of the referendum. As those with longer memories will know, and regardless of events in 1970, football certainly can impact on the national mood; the cases of 1990 and 1996, when England got to the semi-finals of major tournaments, are evidence of that. David Cameron, therefore, needs to hope that Wayne Rooney and co come to the party in France in the summer.

Furthermore, if England don’t qualify out of the group that they’ve been drawn in, the very opposite (in terms of mood) could happen. All of the footballing indicators say that England should achieve that goal, making the feelings of disappointment all the more pronounced if England were to crash out. If Joe Hart proves more Peter Bonetti than Gordon Banks or if Wayne Rooney proves to be more Luther Blissett (google him!) and less Geoff Hurst, then this could have ramifications that are potentially much wider than simply (yet another) calamitous performance in a major football tournament by the English national football team.

Dan Hough is Professor of Politics at the University of Sussex where he is Director of the Sussex Centre for the Study of Corruption.

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How will the EU’s ‘rule of law’ investigation affect Polish politics?

Aleks Szczerbiak

Poland’s right-wing government found itself on the defensive last month following the European Commission’s unprecedented decision to initiate an investigation under the EU’s ‘rule of law’ mechanism. An ongoing row with the Commission will be debilitating for the government which will have to spend valuable time and political capital defending its reputation in the European arena. However, the ruling party has shown that it can fight its corner and the Commission’s intervention could prove a double-edged sword for Poland’s opposition.

Law and Justice on the back-foot

The Polish government – led, since last October’s parliamentary election, by the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party – found itself on the back-foot last month following the European Commission’s surprising decision to initiate a preliminary investigation of the country under the EU’s so-called ‘rule of law’ monitoring mechanism. In 2014, the Union adopted the instrument, intended to address ‘systemic’ breaches of the rule of law and EU principles in any member state. It was meant to complement the so-called ‘nuclear option’ provision in Article 7 of the EU treaties that allows the European Council to impose sanctions on countries found to be in serious and persistent breach of fundamental EU values; in the worst-case scenario, suspending their voting rights. So far the Commission has agreed to the first step under the framework which involves undertaking a preliminary investigation of whether or not there are clear indications of a ‘systemic threat to the rule of law’ and initiating a dialogue with the member state concerned.

This unprecedented move came in response to concerns about recent actions by the Law and Justice government in relation to the membership and functioning of Poland’s constitutional tribunal, a powerful body that rules on the constitutionality of laws, and a new media law passed by the Polish parliament in January. The government’s critics accuse it of undermining the fundamentals of Polish democracy and the rule of law by: ignoring the tribunal’s rulings on the constitutiality of a law determining the body’s membership and trying to curb its power to place checks on the government, as well as placing public broadcasting under direct government control. These actions, they argue, represent attempts to interfere in the independence of the judiciary and put Law and Justice party loyalists in charge of state TV and radio.

Mrs Szydło’s counter-offensive

Law and Justice tried to regain the initiative by undertaking a (somewhat belated) public relations offensive aimed at improving Poland’s image within the EU institutions; re-assuring European leaders of the government’s broadly pro-EU attitude and that it was committed to upholding the rule of law and European values. The government’s supporters defended its actions as necessary measures to restore pluralism and balance to state institutions that they say had been colonised by supporters of, and milieu associated with, the centrist Civic Platform (PO) grouping, the previous governing party. More broadly, they argued that many Polish institutions have been expropriated by an extremely well-entrenched, and often deeply corrupt, post-communist elite and claimed that opposition to the government was being orchestrated by political forces unable to come to terms with their electoral defeat and vested interests hostile to its plans to radically reconstruct the state and introduce sweeping socio-economic reforms.

The centrepiece of Law and Justice’s counter-offensive was (what even the government’s critics admitted was) an effective intervention by prime minister Beata Szydło in a European Parliament (EP) plenary debate on the political situation in Poland held in the week after the Commission’s decision was announced. Although Mrs Szydło’s critics accused her of being evasive and misleading in responding to the Commission’s concerns, in a calm and conciliatory performance she tried to de-escalate the dispute: insisting that the Polish government was open to dialogue and would co-operate to patiently answer all of the criticisms. However, Mrs Szydło did not make any substantial concessions arguing that the constitutional tribunal dispute was an internal matter of a political rather than legal nature for Poland to solve on its own, and that the government’s changes to public broadcasting conformed to European standards. Earlier, she tried to undercut the Commission’s arguments by organising consultations with opposition leaders, for the first time since the new government took office last November, to find a compromise solution to the constitutional tribunal deadlock (unsuccessfully, as it turned out). The EP debate was also preceded by a visit to Brussels by Law and Justice-backed President Andrzej Duda who tried to lower the emotional temperature of the debate by meeting, and holding a (generally good natured) joint press conference, with EU Council President and former Civic Platform prime minister Donald Tusk.

Law and Justice was helped greatly by the weak performance in the EP debate of Civic Platform, now the main opposition grouping. The Polish opposition enjoys close links with the EU political establishment and Western opinion forming media, many of whom share their dislike of Law and Justice, so it was assumed that the EP debate would be favourable territory for the party. Indeed, during party leadership election hustings with local activists, Civic Platform’s new leader Grzegorz Schetyna (who was elected unopposed at the end of January) identified utilising the European arena as a key element of the opposition’s anti-government strategy. However, the party was divided over which tactics to pursue in the EP debate: anxious to capitalise on the government’s difficulties, but fearful of leaving itself open to criticism that it was weakening the country’s international standing by using a European forum to air domestic political grievances. In the event, except for one brief intervention from a Civic Platform MEP, the party effectively sat out the debate and ended up with the worst of both worlds: apparently supporting the Commission intervention but only half-heartedly. 

The EU intervention could drag on

In fact, the Commission has no powers to impose sanctions on Poland as the ‘rule of law’ framework only constitutes a political dialogue without any legally binding recommendations. These can only arise if the Commission proposes them to the EU Council under Article 7 where they require unanimity in one of the three stages of voting; and the Hungarian government has already made it clear that it will veto any attempt to introduce such measures. However, Mrs Szydło’s effective EP performance – and, more broadly, Law and Justice’s public relations counter-offensive – have not ended the conflict between the Commission and Poland. While the government is keen to move political debate back on to ‘normal’ socio-economic issues, where Law and Justice feels it is more in tune with public opinion than its liberal and centrist opponents, the Commission’s ‘rule of law’ investigation process could be a lengthy one, potentially forcing the Polish ruling party to spend valuable time and political capital responding to criticisms and defending its position in the European and international arena.

The Commission has said that it will return to the issue in March after the Venice Commission, an advisory body of the Council of Europe (a non-EU organisation which aims to uphold democracy and the rule of law), issues an opinion on Poland’s constitutional tribunal reforms. If the matter is not resolved by then, the Commission can issue a ‘rule of law recommendation’ giving Poland a specific time period to address the problems it has identified. If it still considers that the problem has not been dealt with to its satisfaction, the Commission can then recommend the invocation of Article 7. At the same time, the constitutional tribunal crisis looks set to rumble on with most of Poland’s opposition parties rejecting a government proposal to resolve the crisis by replacing the tribunal’s membership with eight judges nominated by the opposition and seven by the ruling party. It could also re-surface as a major issue of contention this month when the tribunal expects to rule on the constitutionality of amendments to the law determining its functioning passed by the Polish parliament at the end of December; which the government argues has already come into force and the tribunal has no power to review.

How will Poles react?

At this stage, it is difficult to tell how Poles will react to any further EU interventions. On the one hand, many of them are quite sensitive to international opinion, and understandably wary of anything that might lead to the country losing influence which could make it more difficult for Poland to promote its interests within the EU. Not only do Poles still support their country’s EU membership overwhelmingly, but one of Law and Justice’s opponents’ most effective criticisms of the previous 2005-7 party-led administration was that it had isolated Poland within EU institutions by alienating the main European powers, particularly Germany, and created the perception of the country as an unreliable and unstable EU member. This charge was strongly rejected by Law and Justice supporters who, for their part, argued that it was the previous Civic Platform-led government that failed to advance Poland’s interests effectively within the EU in spite of locating the country squarely within the so-called ‘European mainstream’ and enjoying extremely close relations with Berlin.

Moreover, notwithstanding the potential threat that isolation within the EU might pose to Poland’s tangible, material interests, at a more abstract level many Poles may feel particularly uneasy about the charge that the Law and Justice government is undermining so-called European values. This is because one of the key motivations for Poles voting overwhelmingly to join the EU in a 2003 accession referendum, and main reasons why levels of popular support for the country’s EU membership have remained so high, was the idea that joining the Union represented a historical and civilisational choice: a symbolic re-uniting of Poland with a Western international community of shared values that they had always considered themselves to be part of culturally and spiritually.

However, although most Poles remain broadly pro-EU, they also value their national independence and are likely to react instinctively against the idea of foreign interference in their domestic affairs. Moreover, as last month’s events have shown, Law and Justice will fight its corner in the European arena, so a heavy-handed EU intervention could simply allow the party to present itself as the defender of Polish sovereignty against unwarranted meddling by arrogant Brussels officials. Moreover, the idea of Polish EU membership as representing a ‘civilisational choice’ has been undermined in recent years by an increasing sense of cultural distinctiveness that many Poles feel towards Western Europe. This has been particularly evident in the sphere of moral-cultural values where Polish attachment to traditional morality and national identity stands in stark contrast to the socially liberal, cosmopolitan consensus that predominates among West European political and cultural elites.

This issue has surfaced recently in the contrasting reactions of Poles (and other Central Europeans) and West European political elites (although not necessarily their publics) to the European migration crisis. Poles are keen to avoid the kind of cultural and security problems that many of them feel West European countries have experienced through admitting large numbers of Muslim migrants who are seen as difficult to assimilate and embedding violent extremists within their communities. Indeed, one Law and Justice response to the Commission’s ‘rule of law’ investigation was that the EU should be concerning itself more with addressing the fall-out from the migration crisis than the political situation in Poland. In other words, it not as obvious as it once was – and, arguably, becoming less so – that the ‘civilizational choices’ that are being made by political and cultural elites in other parts of the continent are the same ones that Poles want to make. The ‘European card’ is, therefore, one that the government’s opponents need to play with great caution and could easily backfire on them.

Aleks Szczerbiak is Professor of Politics and Contemporary European Studies at the University of Sussex and Co-Convenor of the European Parties Elections and Referendums Network (EPERN). He blogs regularly about developments on the Polish political scene at Polish Politics Blog