The (Smart) Politics of EU Posturing

by Joshua Tucker on January 24, 2013 · 19 comments

in Comparative Politics,International Relations,Political Economy

The following is guest post from Princeton University political scientist and the Director of Princeton’s European Union Program, Andrew Moravcsik.

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David Cameron’s call for a referendum is a transparent domestic tactical maneuver, designed to strengthen the Conservative position in upcoming elections scheduled for 2015. His government will have difficulty surviving the next popular vote. Risks must be taken, and right-wing support will be critical—given the unrepresentative nature of the British majoritarian electoral system, which (like the American one) strengthens right-wing extremists. By calling for a referendum, Cameron silences criticism from the virulently Euro-skeptic right-wing of his party and forges a rhetorical tool to peel support from the extreme-right UK Independence and British National Parties. Moreover, the prospect of a referendum threatens to split Labor, while uniting the Tories—at least through the election. For Cameron, the real benefit of this approach is that it is so cheap. Rather than giving right-wing Euro-skeptics something real, he offers them a vague and symbolic IOU, not to be cashed in until 2017 or 2018—an eternity in modern politics.

Of course it is in the nature of politics that a domestic tactical maneuver by a British Prime Minister must be disguised behind high-minded principles. Unsurprisingly, the principles invoked here do not withstand close scrutiny. The most basic one is that the EU should focus more on liberalizing the single market and bolstering European competitiveness. Cameron said: “At the core of the European Union must be, as it is now, the single market. Britain is at the heart of that Single Market, and must remain so.” He justifies this not only because it is good, but because it realizes the principle of “fairness.”

No doubt some in the Tory party sincerely believe this, but it is either trivial or disingenuous. It is trivial because the EU already enshrines a single market. It is disingenuous because, while calling for single market liberalization in services, energy and digital products, the British government would like greater “flexibility” and power “to flow back to the member states.” Cameron cloaks this in democratic rhetoric: many British citizens, he says, want to shed invasive regulation by Brussels bureaucrats and return to a “common market.” What he does not say is that, of course, the common market for goods was completed in 1970. Since then it has been impossible even to contemplate liberalization of anything, even goods, let alone things like services or energy, without some common regulations to control non-tariff barriers and mutually recognize domestic procedures. So regulation and liberalization go hand in hand.

Moreover, in practice what greater “flexibility” means is a greater range of selective opt-outs of specific market liberalizing policies, which British special interests seek to exploit in areas such as fishing, farming, and banking—hardly an agenda for “competitiveness.” This combination of principle and self-interest is replicated with regard to other issues. Cameron calls for closer cooperation against terrorism and organized crime while his government seeks opt-outs in policing and security. He calls for closer cooperation to deal with the Eurozone crisis but fewer binding restrictions on British banks. He presents the overall goal as improving Europe, but of course a primary concern is to strengthen the British bargaining position in coming negotiations over a treaty-based resolution of the Eurozone crisis.

Of course it is easy to conclude, as have the usual Continental observers, that the British position is simply a short-sighted smokescreen for political and economic self-interest. Those who believe this should read the second half of Cameron’s speech, which is strongly pro-European, and they should contemplate his underlying political position. True, losing the upcoming parliamentary election would be bad for the Tories, but in the (unlikely) eventuality that they win it, almost as bad would be to lose the subsequent referendum. And the historical truth is: the surest path to success as a right-wing European leader in countries like France and Britain is to exploit a reputation for opposing Europe in order to move closer to it. Consider the cases of President de Gaulle, who exploited his reputation as a Euroskeptic avant la lettre to promote the centralization of the customs union, the common external tariff, the CAP, a common fiscal policy, and decision-making; Nicolas Sarkozy, who exploited his anti-enlargement credentials to reform the French constitution to permit the EU to enlarge; and Margaret Thatcher, who did more to promote the Single Market than anyone else, including Jacques Delors. This “Nixon goes to China” gambit always pays off politically. Cameron is a skilled political operator, and he will grab the chance. For the next five years, he will shape the rhetoric on Europe in Britain, with the goal of winning the referendum.

When the time comes, if he is still in office, Cameron should be able to wage and win the referendum campaign easily—or, as European leaders are want to do these days, lose it once, renegotiate, and vote again until the public gets it right. Referendums are treacherous ground, but the political and rhetorical terrain will likely be advantageous. This is so for four reasons. First, as Cameron points out in his speech, British investment, trade and foreign policy prestige are overwhelmingly dependent on EU membership. Second, in part as a result, he will have powerful allies. British big business and finance will intervene massively in favor of membership. The sitting government and opposition will both weigh in on the same side. Foreign governments, notably that of the US, will favor it. Third, a strict up or down decision in a referendum, while admittedly somewhat risky, has the virtue of being clear—in contrast to the wooly and confusing referendums held on the vaguely worded European Constitution. It will also be a vote for the status quo, which is always favored by voters. Fourth and finally, while the arguments for membership are overwhelmingly positive. It is ironic that the British are the most dissatisfied with EU arrangements, because the truth is that over the past quarter century the EU has evolved significantly to realize Cameron’s vision. (Such is the nature of majoritarian misrepresentation.) Outside of the single market, the British vision of the EU has in fact already been achieved. The intergovernmental European Council has emerged as the preeminent EU institution, dominating both the Commission and the Parliament in most areas. Enlargement has been the greatest success of the EU over the past decades, and continues to evolve. The single market, deepened along lines set forth by Thatcher and Lord Cockfield, has become the central pillar of Europe. The EU is now, in practice, a “coalition of the willing” operation in areas such as social policy, monetary policy foreign policy, and free movement of people. The percentage of laws in Europe subject to EU oversight is stable at about 10-15% of the total. Policies in areas such as police, internal security, and foreign policy are subject to more intergovernmental arrangements. Progress seems underway in negotiating arrangements to manage relations between ins and outs in finance and banking.

Much ink will be spilt over this issue in the next five years—much more than it deserves. We already see the ritual predictions that Britain leave the EU, or that others should force it to leave if it does not recant its heresies. This tendency to endlessly debate European theology reflects the deplorable tendency to treat the EU as an ideological scheme rather than a pragmatic compromise born of interdependence, and thus as a perpetually fragile construction—a bicycle likely to fall over if it is not ridden resolutely forward. Nothing could be further from the truth. Despite all the whinging on the right, almost no serious politician in Britain actually favors pulling out, just as no politician in a government in any of the 27 member states favors withdrawal. The basic truth is that European integration has now been around for more than 60 years, longer than most democracies in modern Europe, and it is here to stay. Every one of its member states is in it to stay.

In other words, far from being the radical threat to Europe that the Brussels beltway pundits fear, Cameron essentially proposes to postpone the issue until 2017, and then to claim credit for trends that have long been established, defending the status quo with a broad centrist coalition behind him. Smart politics.

{ 19 comments }

Chris Hanretty January 24, 2013 at 5:15 pm

“British majoritarian electoral system, which (like the American one) strengthens right-wing extremists”

This claim seems flat out wrong on the face of it. A comparison of 2009 EP elections (party-list PR) with 2010 GE (FPTP) is illustrative.

Andrew Moravcsik January 24, 2013 at 10:48 pm

Good point. With more space we could have talked about candidate selection, etc. But Euro-elections are not a good comparison, really. They are not representative of anything, with such low turnout. Anyway, what I meant was that the only way for right-wing extremists to get into power in any durable way is to hitch a ride within one of the majority parties, which they do in the US and UK systems (and the reformed Italian system, too). Elsewhere they can tend to get more votes than power. This is particularly true about EU issues, which are generally low-salience–the Euro/macro issues being an exception–so in other European countries one sees right-wing parties focusing on immigration rather than Europe.

JND January 24, 2013 at 6:27 pm

Alternately, he might just be right.

Chris Hanretty January 24, 2013 at 7:42 pm

Yes, he might just be, but I think it would have to involve either (a) a non-Downsian account of party competition, or (b) strong assumptions about a bimodal distribution of constituency medians, and (c) assumptions about the magnitude of these effects dwarfing the “permissive” effects of PR. Concerning the latter, then (AFAIK) literature on the effects of electoral systems is either saying that there is a null effect of PR on extremist representation, or a conditional and positive effect, but I don’t think many are arguing the other way, that FPTP boosts extremism.

Nick January 24, 2013 at 8:59 pm

With Chris, Moravcsik is flat out wrong with his notion that right wing extremists have additional strength in the electoral system. The UK doesn’t have the same biases towards countryside constituencies as the US, and there are fewer opportunities for gerrymandering than in US redistricting. The current system favours Labour at general elections but that is essentially accidental; the Tories have a lot of support in deep blue seats that can’t help them win swing seats.

He is also wrong that Cameron’s strategy is to attract BNP voters. They are too small to be worth bothering with in a FPTP election and BNP support turns up in a lot of Labour constituencies anyway. They are barely competing for the same seats unlike UKIP which has more support and does directly compete with them in most areas.

The rest of the article is a reasonable, if somewhat slanted, position. I think it underestimates the potential value of reforming agriculture (UK and Europe have much higher food costs than necessary).

Andrew Moravcsik January 24, 2013 at 11:16 pm

On agriculture, I did not say anything one way or another about the value of reforming agriculture. But I think it would be naive to think the Tories want to do anything public-spirited in this regard–or that food costs drive UK policy. (We have come a long way since the Repeal of the Corn Laws!) It is striking that Cameron did not (as I recall) mention agriculture in the speech. Moreover, the Cameron government has explicitly repudiated an alliance with those countries (e.g. Germany) who want to renationalize aspects of the CAP, on the ground that British producers now benefit from significant payments from Europe. Moreover, Britain opposes certain sensible CAP reforms proposed by some Brussels institutions, such as limiting payments to big farms, because it would disproportionately impact the UK. In the end, as with some of the other issues I mentioned, special interests dominate this area.

Mihai Martoiu Ticu January 25, 2013 at 4:23 am

If I understand your story correctly, the British want mainland Europe to function like a colony.

DB January 25, 2013 at 7:26 am

In no way can the British electoral system be described in general terms as “strengthen[ing] Right-wing extremists”. UKIP have never won a parliamentary seat. The BNP have never won a parliamentary seat (and neither did the NF before them). Enoch Powell had to go to Northern Ireland to get a seat once he’d denounced the Tory Party’s (then) pro-Europeanism. Historically, Left-wing extremists have probably had more success at getting their people into the Commons, especially in the 1980s; and in the current parliament, the Greens and Respect have managed to get MPs elected even though they are far less popular nationally than UKIP.

Then we come to “countries like France and Britain”. Yes, de Gaulle played nationalist while deepening European ties, and Sarkozy did the same. But Thatcher deepened the Single Market as a publicly sincere, believing pro-European, who’d been at the forefront of the 1975 referendum campaign. It was only after (starting with the Bruges speech) she decided – rightly or wrongly – that her pro-Europeanism had led her astray. So not at all the same. Since then, such is the strength of feeling on the European issue in the UK that probably our most pro-European government (under Blair) felt unable to risk joining the Euro, despite its preeminent domestic political position.

Anybody familiar with Tory politics since Maastricht knows that Euroscepticism has become the default stance within the party; the only true-believing Europhile Tories are all over 70, a marked contrast with the French Right. Whereas ‘No’ in French referendums has always been taken as a “no change” outcome, the Prime Minister’s declared position is that ‘No’ will be taken as a “Britain leaves the EU” outcome if his referendum were to come to pass. If he tried to change the terms, his backbenchers would quickly knife him. (I accept, if it was a near 50:50 result, there may be some wriggle room on this point; but if it was (say) 70:30 ‘No’, an attempt by Cameron to ask again would cause the government to fall.)

Andrew Moravcsik January 26, 2013 at 11:14 am

You miss the point, I think. The measure of whether a political system strengthens Euroskepticism is not whether people vote for radical right parties. It is whether politicians who hold Euroskeptic views have a role in governing. In the parliamentary systems of continental Europe, people vote for them and their votes are then discarded in governing coalitions, which in almost every country remain solidly pro-European. Being a Euroskeptic relegates you to a shadow existence, much discussed by political scientists but never in power. In Britain, like the US, the majoritarian system has traditionally brought these people into the major parties as fringe elements. As you rightly point out, the only elections in which the British radical right ever achieves power are the (relatively meaningless) Euro-elections. This means they have power, as backbenchers, and are able to push policy, as they are now. Moreover, it gives them a solid establishment position from which to influence candidate selection processes and to create and recreate rhetoric and belief-systems of Euroskepticism from within, which persist in the UK and the US in a way they do not on the Continent. The fact that left-wing extremists also benefit from this characteristic of the system seems neither here nor there.

I am not sure what the statement “anybody familiar with Tory politics since Maastricht knows that Euroscepticism has become the default stance within the party” means. (I am always suspicious of statements that begin “anyone familiar with…”) It depends on what is meant by “within the party” and “Euroskepticism.” But if it means that the average Tory voter of a majoritarian Tory party favors pulling out of the EU, I’d like to see the evidence.

The story about Thatcher is fanciful. She was known to be a Euroskeptic well-before Bruges, and she was not “led astray.” She knew full well exactly what political game was being played in 1985, as the recent historiography makes clear.

Finally, the views of any British government on the Euro are an entirely different issue. The British are not in the Euro, probably should not be, and are under no pressure to be. That, it seems to me, mitigates in favor staying in, not the reverse.

Nick January 25, 2013 at 7:33 am

Politicians very rarely want to do anything that is publicly spirited if they can’t see a way to benefit from it so I am not sure it is much of an argument that Cameron is essentially self-interested. So things like reform of the CAP could happen once politicians are put in a position to capture some of the benefit for themselves (lower consumer prices are not always easy for politicians to benefit directly from).

Robert Ford January 25, 2013 at 12:35 pm

“By calling for a referendum, Cameron silences criticism from the virulently Euro-skeptic right-wing of his party and forges a rhetorical tool to peel support from the extreme-right UK Independence and British National Parties.”

I have my doubts about both halves of this statement. Britain’s previous referendum in 1975 did not silence the Eurosceptic radicals for long (though then, they were left wingers in the Labour party). I don’t see much reason for Eurosceptics in the Conservative party to remain silent indefinitely – they will start making demands for a clear line from Cameron ahead of each negotiation. They still don’t trust Cameron, and have shown a clear willingness to rebel.

As for UKIP, I doubt this will make a serious dent in their support for long, as most of their voters are (a) more concerned about immigration than about the EU and (b) deeply disaffected from, and distrustful of, mainstream politicians (the BNP are simply not relevant any more, as they have collapsed since 2010). The EU promise won’t move them as it does nothing to address their main concern – immigration – which will once again move to the top of the agenda as restrictions on Bulgarian sand Romanian migration are lifted at the beginning of 2014. Even those who do rate the EU as a concern are unlikely to trust a promise which will conveniently not be executed until after the next election. If UKIP support does continue to rise, as seems likely when the European Parliament election comes into focus (support for UKIP and other small parties has risen sharply in each EP election year since PR was introduced) , Cameron will be in a weaker position as he will have taken a huge risk for apparantly no electoral gain. Hard to imagine the Eurosceptics in his own party staying quiet if that comes to pass.

Christopher Kam January 25, 2013 at 3:19 pm

“given the unrepresentative nature of the British majoritarian electoral system, which (like the American one) strengthens right-wing extremists…”. As several previous commenters have noted, this statement is flat out wrong. Redistributions at least since the mid-1980s have (on paper, at least) worked in Labour’s favour.

Andrew Moravcsik January 26, 2013 at 11:19 am

This blog seems to be dominated by commentators who miss the forest for the trees! The question, as I mentioned before, is not whether Labour or Tories benefit, nor how many votes extreme right-wing parties receive, nor whether extreme Left-wingers also can benefit. It is whether the system provides a mechanism for extreme right wing politicians to get into positions of power in large numbers, and perpetuate career opportunities for their like. The UK system does. The French, German, Austrian, Spanish, even in many respects Italian, systems do so; the British system does not.

Andrew Moravcsik January 26, 2013 at 11:23 am

Rather than focusing on the details of BNP voting, perhaps the posters would like to address the big issue in the room. This is interesting. Here we have a real divergence of predictions. My friend Kate McNamara, on this blog, thinks British withdrawal from the EU is likely. Evidently some of these posters think so, too. I think it is close to impossible, even if Britons vote to do so. What makes this interesting is that these are theoretically-grounded positions. Kate thinks that the constructivist “the world becomes what we think it to be” approach applies not just to the Euro, where I think there are theoretical reasons to believe it has some purchase, but to renunciation of EU membership, where I believe there are theoretical reasons to believe this is not the case. I am not sure what Kate’s reasons are for defending such a ambitious scope of this causal mechanism, but I do not think there is much social scientific support for it. Probably those on this blog who support this position do not think of themselves as social constructivists, but they are in many respects. Normally I take the principled (and, I believe, correct) position that prediction is a rather poor test of social scientific theories, and do not engage in much of it. But some things are very stable and I am confident here. I’d be interested to know why anyone thinks that this isn’t an open and shut case on the basis of the structural factors I set forth. And does anyone want to bet?

Nick January 26, 2013 at 2:41 pm

Andrew, perhaps we are confused because you seem to be conflating right-wing extremism with Euroscepticism. On what basis would you describe Euroscepticism as extreme? Does Norway or Switzerland have extremist politics for only being in the EEA or EFTA. Of course, Euroscepticism looks “radical” in the UK because it involves a significant change the status quo, but that doesn’t make the position extreme. Changing the British National Health Service into a European-style social insurance scheme would be very radical indeed in UK politics, but that doesn’t make the position itself “extremist”.

And do you honestly think that extremist politicians are more empowered in British politics than in the rest of Europe. What about Lega Nord in Italy? They use virulently anti-immigrant rhetoric (and sometimes policies) that would be completely unacceptable within a British Conservative government. Yet they are often parts of governing Italian coalitions.

Andrew Moravcsik January 26, 2013 at 9:59 pm

Why link extremism and Euro-skepticism? Because it so happens that support for the EU is (famously) a center-weighted single-peaked issue: in every political system, the center tends to support it and the extremes tend to oppose it. The threat in Britain tends to come from the right, hence that’s what we are talking about here. I don’t think comparisons to Italy are very useful: it’s unlike other major countries, and it’s quasi-majoritarian, regionalized, and a mess. But, for the record, if any country pulls out of the Euro, I think it will be (ideology notwithstanding) a right-wing Italian government.

Why Britain? Britain is the only member state of the European Union where more than 1% of elected politicians at the national level, if any at all, has ever called for a referendum on the maintenance of EU membership, let alone called for withdrawal. Membership in a given EU policy (the Euro) is different (though so it happens that, too, has majoritarian support in every Euro country, for reasons I consider unsustainable and not very sensible). Britain is unique. You don’t hear the Lega Nord saying this type of thing, because they are responsible to an electorate.

So we can either conclude that Britain is intrinsically a xenophobic and anti-European country for some deep cultural or socioeconomic reason. Having studied the 60 year history of the EU in detail, I’d like to hear the argument, because I find most of the “conventional wisdom” about British exceptionalism on this to be little better than hand-waving and journalism. This is not Switzerland, with a genuinely insular tradition, or Norway, dominated by primary sector production.

Do I think extremist politicians are more empowered in Britain than elsewhere? Yes, on the average, but not on all issues. I do not think it’s helpful to make loose comparisons to immigration, or Italy. Why? First, because Europe is a non-salient issue for most voters. So Cameron’s problem is to deal with elites and ideological extremists. On immigration, he has to deal with a broader set of electors more broadly distributed. You see this in other Continental countries, e.g. Austria, Italy, Netherlands, France, where right-wing parties may be anti-immigrant, even sometimes anti-Euro, but have learned it does not pay to be anti-Europe. I have written elsewhere, in a more scholarly vein, on the importance of the fact that Europe is (in a political science sense) a non-salient issue (Euro aside). Second, because in Britain on European issues, as in the US on many right-wing issues, the elites are more extreme than the population. This, combined with the fact that they manage to have a disproportionate influence on one of the two major parties, is key. This has been kept in check by the LD alliance, but all bets off now.

Nick January 27, 2013 at 8:39 am

Ok so my take on it is as follows. Support for EU integration is generally single-peaked and non-salient because its most obvious benefit is to offer several extra rungs on career ladders for public officials, including civil servants and politicians. It looks like a centre-weighted issue because it is naturally supported by politicians with a good chance of winning elections.

Although it is generally non-salient, it is often not especially popular even in heavily integrated states. Hence why the EU constitution couldn’t be ratified using referendums. All the major Swiss parties were in favour of EU integration but they had to have a referendum to go in, and didn’t win it. So regardless of Switzerland’s history, it was really its direct democratic mechanisms that kept them out. I am not sure how the structure of Norway’s economy makes a difference here either. Norway’s political elites were also in favour of integration. Trying to suggest them as special cases sounds also a bit like hand waving to me. If that is the case, it means you are kinda begging the question about Euroscepticism as extremism.

Why the UK is different is a good question. FPTP, despite its distortions, can produce more competitive elections with more varied party policy profiles than many forms of PR. You can actually throw a whole party out, rather than merely change the make up of a coalition. But I would also hazard a lot of political self-interest too. Perhaps many British public officials already feel they have plenty of career options even outside the EU. They have various commonwealth institutions. They can pursue careers in the rest of the Anglophone world. They can become life peers in the House of Lords, which gives them status but without demanding all that much work.

There might also be genuine institutional frictions. It is often unclear how EU directives ought to be interpreted within a common law tradition. Unpopular court or regulatory decisions tend to get blamed on the EU so as to avoid holding officials closer to home responsible (regardless of whether the EU was actually responsible).

As for predictions about the future, I am quite partial to Roland Vaubel’s prediction that England will become the Quebec of Europe. Periodically threatening to leave, but never quite leaving, and keeping the institutions as a whole more federal than they might otherwise be, possibly to the benefit of the rest of the EU. This certainly sounds like the sort of gambit that Cameron is playing anyway:

http://www.iea.org.uk/publications/research/the-european-institutions-as-an-interest-group

Andrew Moravcsik January 28, 2013 at 8:39 am

I thought Monkey Cage was supposed to be the center of empirical social science, but this is quasi-Euroskeptic speculation that cannot be right within an order of magnitude. I only have time for two issues.

Take, first, the business about the EU being a single-peaked issue in 27 countries because politicians get jobs. Does this even deserve a reply? There are fewer career jobs in Brussels than in a decent-sized city government in Europe, and most are filled by lifetime civil servants chosen by competitive exam. The number of late-careers slots for pols (e.g. Commissioners or High Representatives or Central bankers) is maybe a some dozen. So the entire political class of Britain will spin the issue for five decades because they might compete for one of 100 divided by 27 jobs? And they convince business and the public how?

Take, second, the issue of the EU’s popularity. Actually, across the EU, despite the Euro crisis (and I am, as most readers probably know, a critic of the Euro as currently constituted, and do not blame voters for being critical of it), the European institutions are more trusted, more popular, than national ones. There are lots of reasons why referendums were lost, about which I have also written, but the fact that the EU institutions are intrinsically unpopular is not one of them. What is true is that the EU is not salient, so when it is publicly debated, the debate tends to be dominated by Euro-federalists and Euro-skeptics, which gives us a misleading sense of what voters and normal people, and also the elites that matter (who are mostly economic), really think about the issue.

Nick January 28, 2013 at 12:49 pm

Monkey Cage is simply the best source of empirical political science that I have ever come across, which is why I thought it was worth pointing out the skewed perspective you had of the British electoral map. Unlike other bloggers, because you are published here, I am certain you will take a well-founded criticism seriously, even if you don’t buy my whole argument.

And I am not being purely Eurosceptic and cynical. There are plenty of public goods that the EU supplies and it would be very bad if they weren’t supplied at all. I just think they are supplied significantly sub-optimally at the moment. I am trying to apply the same level of empirical scepticism that you rightly apply to Cameron’s tactical moves to the question of why the EU is so much more salient (and generally popular) amongst political elites than the general public.

Having worked for several years in Westminster, I get the impression that the EU is experienced on a day-to-day basis as offering exciting and safe employment opportunities, whether working for it, or lobbying for it. International governance just is exciting. And, of course, part of the attraction of it is that it is perceived to be good, important work as well. European capitals aren’t sloshing around with money in the same way that Washington DC is. A few small offices (e.g. Representations of the European Commission), and some funds for marketing and think-tanks, can secure a lot of livelihoods in a relatively small sector of the economy and generate sympathy with other public officials.

But perhaps support is even more due to simple co-ordination. The EU is currently the way that international trade and a number of other policy areas are governed, and its one that experienced political actors are used to. It would be costly for them to learn new terrain under different treaty rules. The same applies to businesses that are setup to deal with the single market in a certain way and enjoy the regularity that the EU offers. That would explain why being anti-integration isn’t extreme in Switzerland or Norway: they have already co-ordinated for trade using different mechanisms. Its arranging new mechanisms or switching mechanisms now that is costly, at least for established actors.

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