Bringing Rhetorical Action Back In. Brexit and the Corona crisis show the strength of norm-based arguments

Future of Europe blog, Dirk Leuffen, Pascal Mounchid |

EU researchers have been rather silent about rhetorical action in recent years. The current Brexit and Corona reconstruction negotiations show why they shouldn’t be, Dirk Leuffen and Pascal Mounchid argue.

Chief EU negotiator MICHEL BARNIER in London for a new round of Brexit negotiations between the UK Government and the EU

Chief EU negotiator Michel Barnier in London this month, for a new round of Brexit negotiations. (Photo: Ben Cawthra/Sipa USA/NTB Scanpix)

In the early 2000s, rhetorical action – the “strategic use of norm-based arguments” – was a powerfully used concept in academic debates on European integration. For instance, it was applied to explain the EU’s and NATO’s Eastern enlargement, as well as EU constitutionalization.

More recently, however, the concept of rhetorical action has largely vanished from the scene. We believe, wrongly so. The mechanism still exists, as the examples of the Brexit negotiations and the Corona recovery measures highlight.

The Helsinki effect

When properly applied, strategic norm-based arguments may rhetorically entrap opponents. In a “community environment”, actors can refer to the community’s constitutive values and norms and thereby put “social and moral pressure” on those actors who, arguably, deviate from these norms. Public shaming and blaming raise the costs for defecting actors by imposing reputation costs on them. This, in turn, enhances the probability of compliance – even against short-term interests.

If the norms are accepted in the first place, actors can be “entrapped”. Daniel C. Thomas’ (2001) study of the “Helsinki effect”, named after the 1975 CSCE Helsinki Final Act, highlights that “rhetorical entrapment” can actually make a difference. In his study, Thomas shows that dissidents used the Helsinki Final Act as a normative reference point to criticize their socialist governments’ poor human rights records. The critique did work because these governments had previously publicly committed themselves to honouring the norms codified in Helsinki.

Pacta sunt servanda – also during Brexit

The negotiations on EU-UK future relations are a telling example of applied rhetorical action. In early June 2020, in response to London’s unceasing thinning out of the negotiating dossiers, EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier publicly argued:

We must stick to our commitments if we want to move forward! We engaged in this negotiation on the basis of a joint Political Declaration that clearly sets out the terms of our future partnership. This document is available in all languages, including English. It is a good read, if I may say so. This declaration was negotiated with and approved by Prime Minister Johnson. It was approved by the leaders of the 27 Member States at the European Council in October 2019. It has the backing of the European Parliament. It is – and it will remain for us – the only valid reference, the only relevant precedent in this negotiation, as it was agreed by both sides.

When accusing the UK to continuously “backtrack on the commitments it has undertaken in the Political Declaration,” Barnier points out deviations from a commonly approved normative reference point. In this particular case, the norms had even been laid out in written form. The fact that Boris Johnson himself approved the declaration puts additional normative pressure on him. Barnier thus uses a strategy of shaming to promote his negotiation agenda.

While rhetorical action could hardly be more explicit, we still do not know whether the UK will feel rhetorically entrapped and therefore succumb to the argumentative strategy. In general, however, meeting rooms can be left more easily than commonly constructed identities and value schemes.

From austerity water to Keynesian wine

The exogenous shock of the Corona pandemic severely affected not just all EU member states’ health systems, but also their economies. At the same time, the impact was asymmetrical: a great variation emerged at both the medical and the financial playing fields, revealing growing inequalities between EU member states.

An interesting fact is that Germany – before the crisis amongst the EU’s strictest defenders of austerity – turned to Keynesianism back at home. Although less affected by the medical crisis, Germany – according to estimates by Bruegel – plans to spend more than 1,600 billion euros to boost its national economic recovery, thereby largely extending other member states’ ambitions.

Germany’s shift in domestic economic policy preceded its shift in European policy. The Franco-German proposal of May 18th 2020 to establish a European recovery fund containing 500 billion Euro of grants, leaves the austerity measures of the Eurozone crisis behind, possibly heralding a new conciliation of procedural and distributive justice in the EU.

One way to explain the notable policy shift consists in pointing out that in a community environment double standards are likely to undermine legitimacy. Drinking Keynesian wine back at home, while preaching austerity water in Europe, reduces credibility, as Christian Breunig and one of the authors argued in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Reputation costs, in fact, proved to be on the rise in polls documenting growing anti-German resentments after the first weeks of the Corona crisis.

Frugal failure

With Brexit, the frugal states in Europe’s North had lost the most outspoken supporter of an economically liberal EU. Germany’s position shift towards higher intra-EU transfers constituted another major blowback. Losing Germany made the position of the frugal four or five (Austria, Denmark, the Netherlands, Sweden and Finland) weaker – both in power terms as well as on normative grounds.

Preceding the Corona crisis, Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz in a Financial Times editorial (February 16th 2020), published with Mark Rutte, prime minister of the Netherlands, Mette Frederiksen, prime minister of Denmark, and Stefan Löfven, prime minister of Sweden, , had defended their frugal approach with reference to their commitment to the EU. For Kurz et al. “[s]tanding up for common values does not have a price tag, and the single market, a considerable driver of European competitiveness, is not a costly endeavour.”

However, as we know after the European summit of July 17th to 21st 2020, the Corona crisis ended up being a game changer. Described by Belgian Finance Minister Alexander De Croo as an “existential battle for Europe”, the negotiations on the recovery fund highlighted that the Single Market, in fact, was at stake. According to BBC,  President Macron reportedly “banged his fists” on the table, telling the frugal states that he thought they “were putting the European project in danger”. Likewise, Italy’s Giuseppe Conte not just referred to community and solidarity norms, but also criticized the frugal four for threatening the existence of the Common Market. The community environment was stressed by Spain’s Foreign Ministre Arancha González Laya comparing the EU to a “family’s relationship”.

The negotiation strategy of the recovery funds supporters was thus twofold: references to a community ethos were larded with undisguised warning about the future of the commonly supported Single Market. At the end even the reluctant Northern member states agreed to a Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF) for 2021 to 2027 and the recovery fund – Next Generation EU – together totalling over €1.8 trillion and including issuing common debt at the EU level.

Rhetorical action and the battle for norms

Whether the reference to the EU’s community norms, or rather the insight that the Single Market really was at danger, finally led to concessions, is up to speculation or historical analysis, once the archives are open. Notwithstanding, references to norms again played an important role during the recovery fund negotiations.

It should be noted, however, that during the negotiations of the recovery programme, the ‘frugal states’ repeatedly also referred to the treaty basis to back their argument that uncontrolled spending would violate EU norms.

That highlights an important point: can we say ex ante, which norms dominate, or is the proof in the pudding? While this remains a challenge for rhetorical action, it should not stop us to revitalize the concept, but make us more curious about the mechanisms of how norms and justificatory strategies shape EU politics today.