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.
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.