That is why both Berlin and Paris have reacted negatively to Cameron's call for a referendum. While both French President François Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel politely said they would listen to British ideas, they unleashed their foreign ministers to convey the real message. Germany's Guido Westerwelle said Britain could not indulge in "cherry-picking" bits of Europe it liked and opting out of obligations other nations signed up for. France's Laurent Fabius tried a sporting metaphor: "Say that Europe is a soccer club," he offered. "You join this soccer club, but you can't say you want to play rugby!" The European media was scathing. Headlines accused Cameron of "blackmail," taking a "risky gamble," and "demanding à la carte Europe."
Meanwhile, back home, Cameron faced 100 of his Tory MPs and the charismatic mayor of London, Boris Johnson, who pledged to campaign for a no vote on the referendum and withdrawal from Europe unless the prime minister managed to secure massive concessions that allowed Britain full access to the single market but an opt-out from EU rules disliked by British Euroskeptics.
The other main parties are also open to a referendum, though both Clegg -- leader of the Liberal Democrats -- and Labour Party leader Ed Miliband say it should not take priority over pressing domestic problems like low growth, increasing poverty, and the damage wrought by savage cuts to welfare and local services made as part of austerity policies that even the International Monetary Fund is now questioning.
Eight years ago, when Cameron was contemplating running for his party's leadership in the summer of 2005, he said to me, "I am much more Euroskeptic than you imagine, Denis." Between 2005 and becoming prime minister, he encouraged the growth of anti-Europeanism. He led the Conservatives out of their decades-long alliance with other center-right parties in Europe including Merkel's Christian Democratic Union. He ensured that only devout Euroskeptics were chosen as candidates to be Tory MPs. He mocked and scorned the EU as the source of British weakness. He promoted strident Euroskeptics to the cabinet.
He did all this pandering while still insisting that he ultimately wants Britain to stay in Europe. But now he has unleashed forces that may soon slip out of his control. As with free trade in the 19th century or the Irish question later on, there are some political issues that Britain takes years to come to terms with. Europe is one of them. But in deciding that a populist plebiscite is to be preferred to Parliament deciding the question, Cameron has opened a new era in British and European politics with consequences no one can foresee.