Yet pulling out isn't quite as easy as it seems. Britain is not always quite as
isolated from Europe as it likes to think it is. Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden,
and some of the newer members from Eastern Europe see Britain as a useful --
and free market -- bulwark against
French influence in Europe. Nevertheless, despite German Chancellor Angela
Merkel's kind suggestion that some "compromise" will have
to be found, it is hard to envisage an outcome that can simultaneously satisfy
Cameron, the British Conservative Party, and other European leaders.
Although Cameron was careful not to divulge the details of Britain's "shopping list" of powers that London believes should be repatriated to national capitals, he offered a clearer sense of his agenda at the weekly Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons: "I want Britain to reform the European Union.... We have been very clear about what we want to see changed. There is a whole series of areas -- social legislation, employment legislation, environmental legislation -- where Europe has gone far too far, and we need to properly safeguard the single market. We also want to make sure that ever-closer union does not apply to the United Kingdom."
In truth, Cameron's speech on Wednesday was an admission of defeat. For years, he preferred to avoid talking about Europe, mindful that divisions on the subject helped terminate Margaret Thatcher's career and crippled John Major's premiership. The Tory obsession with all things European has often damaged the party's standing, especially with nonaligned, centrist voters for whom Euro-mania is extremely off-putting.
However, the combination of the eurozone's crisis and increasing levels of Euroskepticism within his own party forced Cameron's hand. It did not help that the UK Independence Party -- a once minor group of obsessives who wish Britain to leave the EU immediately and fully -- has, according to recent opinion polls, supplanted the Liberal Democrats as the third force in British politics. That may be a temporary blip, but it's a telling indicator of the political winds in Britain: The country's most Euroskeptic party is now more popular than its most Europhile.
A poll commissioned by Conservative Home (an influential website for Tory members and activists) reported that 85 percent of Conservative members thought that Cameron was only giving his speech because he'd been forced to by the party's increasing distrust of the EU. That poll also showed the limitations of Cameron's approach: Some 38 percent of members want Britain to leave the EU now, while another 40 percent desire nothing more than a free trade agreement with the rest of the EU.
The "better off out" brigade at least has a position rooted in some measure of logic, even if it is not a position favored by the prime minister. Britain could doubtless survive quite comfortably outside the EU, but its international influence might very well be diminished and its businesses would still find themselves forced to abide by numerous EU-issued regulations.
The "free trade only" grouping, however, pine for an impossible pipe dream. Cameron gently attempted to tell them as much, pointing out that Norway -- a member of the European Economic Area but not of the EU -- must also abide by EU rules, but lacks the ability to shape or influence those rules. That's one reason Cameron still wants Britain to remain a member: Markets are governed by laws, and London would lose the ability to influence those laws and regulations if it left the EU. But Britain's European partners are unlikely to be impressed by this "cherry-picking" approach. Cameron hopes Merkel and other leaders need him more than Britain needs Europe -- but his bluff may well be called.
In truth, a large dollop of British disgruntlement with the EU often has little to do with Brussels and rather more to do with the European Court of Human Rights and its perceived interference in British affairs. For instance, one long-running and festering dispute concerns the court's ruling that Britain's blanket ban on prisoners voting in elections is in contravention of human rights. This, like similar cases -- notably those involving the deportation of terrorist suspects -- has aroused the ire of Britain's most ferocious tabloid newspapers, which love nothing more than denouncing any European infringement of British "sovereignty."
Such a distinction, however, seems to make little difference to Britain's endless Euro-argument. It is, in the end, a debate dominated by symbols rather than actual policy. Britain, for instance, already enjoys one of the most liberal labor markets in the world. Despite popular sentiment to the contrary, it has not been strangled by red tape from Brussels.
In the end, however, the British really are poor Europeans. They wish access to the single market but are wary of the rules and regulations that come with it. Most of all, they don't feel or consider themselves European. They are happy to lecture their neighbors -- one reason that many on the continent have lost patience with Britain's ceaseless grumbling -- but disinclined to take suggestions from anyone. They consider themselves different -- an island people apart -- and maintain a keen and lofty skepticism toward all things continental.
Ultimately, this is not simply a struggle to define Britain's national interest. In many ways, it's a battle for Britain's political identity -- which is another reason the prevailing wind is a Euroskeptic breeze. If Britain does remain a member of the EU, it is liable to do so with some reluctance. But for the prime minister, his bid to placate his own party has made it dramatically more likely Britain might actually leave. As legacies go, this isn't quite what David Cameron had in mind when he entered 10 Downing Street but, forced by his party and by events beyond Britain, it may prove the defining moment of his premiership.