LONDON — The late William F. Buckley once summed up the purpose of National Review, the magazine he founded, as to "[stand] athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it." It was, he suggested, "out of place" not least because "there never was an age of conformity quite like this one." Something similar might be said of Britain's awkward relationship with the European Union.
Much of the continent has long favored an ever closer union. Britain, however, has stood alone, demanding opt-outs from the provisions of European treaties (on matters such as the euro and border currency) and stubbornly resisting anything that smacks of the creation of a European "superstate." Britain, proud and stubborn, was late to the European party and ever since has loitered on the fringes, never quite sure whether it was a good idea to come at all. The EU has proved a poor replacement for the long-lost glories of empire. If Europe was to be the future, it was still only a pale shadow of the past.
Until recently, however, the idea that Britain might actually leave the EU -- the so-called "Brexit" -- seemed most improbable. That is no longer the case. The previously impossible now seems quite possible. British Prime Minister David Cameron announced on Wednesday, Jan. 23, that his Conservative Party now favors a popular referendum on Britain's continuing membership in the European club. The "in or out" referendum, which Cameron considered unnecessary even two years ago, is, at least in part, a response to the eurozone's economic crisis and the resultant moves toward an even stronger political -- as well as fiscal -- union. Britain will have no part of that. And because polls show a majority of Britons favoring a referendum (and some showing more Britons want to leave the EU than remain in it), we may expect the opposition Labour Party to eventually endorse a plebiscite too.
Cameron says he does not want to leave the EU, but merely reform it. Britain, he says, must grasp the opportunity afforded by the eurozone's woes and fundamentally alter the terms of its membership. Sovereignty must be repatriated, and Europe's ability to impact British social and business policies sharply curtailed. (The only example Cameron cited, mind you, was the EU-inspired working conditions for doctors in Britain's hospitals. Would Britain really leave the EU over such an ostensibly trivial matter?)
If Cameron persuades his European colleagues to accept these reforms, then he promises to campaign "with heart and soul" for Britain to remain within the EU. But if he fails -- and "success" has not yet been defined -- then he, as well as his party, will presumably press for a British exit. In other words, the status quo will not be enough. It is not quite clear why a status quo that Britain can -- however unhappily -- live with now (otherwise, Cameron would favor leaving immediately) would become intolerable in 2017. This, however, does not appear to trouble the prime minister or his deeply Euroskeptic party.
By acceding to pressure to commit to a referendum -- assuming he wins the next general election, scheduled for 2015 -- Cameron has made the "Brexit" more likely. This Overton window has shifted. Cameron's own future is now inextricably tied to the European issue. If he thinks a single speech can solve his domestic problems, he is liable to be disappointed. But there's a bigger risk in this brinkmanship. There is a danger that other European leaders will conclude life with Britain is more exhausting and frustrating than it is worth. Should they do that, then Cameron may be forced to support a British exit after all.
Cameron, however, was at pains to try to present his ultimatum as a constructive contribution to the debate on Europe's future. As the prime minister reminded his European colleagues, thousands of British bodies lie in European cemeteries -- bodies of those who died fighting for peace on the continent. Britain, the none-too-subtle subtext was, will take no lectures from its European partners. Nor will the country be accused of being a "bad European." On the contrary, his suggestions for reform were meant constructively and should be shared by all EU members. Predictably, this proved an unpopular message. As Guy Verhofstadt, the former Belgian prime minister, warned in an op-ed in the Independent: Cameron is "playing with fire.... He can control neither the timing nor the outcome of the negotiations, and in so doing is raising false expectations that can never be met and jeopardising both Britain's long-term interests and the unity of the EU."
Cameron's message is that the EU should concentrate on boosting its international competitiveness, rather than on moving toward an ever more centralized union. The continent should make a virtue of its diversity. Any "one-size-fits-all" solution, he said, is a recipe for guaranteed failure. Most of all, Cameron stressed, the single European market -- which remains a work in progress -- needs to be protected and expanded (to include, for instance, a true single market in services). This, it should be noted, is a sensible message and one that might be approved by plenty of other European countries.