It's been said that Britain acquired its empire in a "fit of absent-mindedness," rather than through any coherent plan. Future historians may one day say the same about the "Brexit" -- as the potential scenario of a British exit from the European Union has been called. As Prime Minister David Cameron lifted his eyes to stare right into the camera during a Jan. 22 speech and promise that there "will be an in-out referendum" on his country staying linked to Europe, he opened a new chapter in the convoluted history of the relationship between the EU and its most ambivalent longtime member.
It's certainly a dramatic gambit -- the first offer by any European head of government to legislate for a plebiscite that could allow a vote to quit the European Union (the vote would be held in 2017). An opinion poll after Cameron's speech showed a narrow majority in favor of leaving Europe. But the British prime minister has left many of the details unexplained, including what happens between the day of the vote and the day when Britain says au revoir to Europe forever.
Unlike some senior ministers in his cabinet -- like the former Tory party leader Iain Duncan Smith, who openly talked about a future for Britain outside the EU -- Cameron often seems to want to have it both ways on the Brexit. He insists he wants to stay in the European Union, but one fashioned after his own desires. Austria's chancellor, Werner Faymann, noted that Cameron seems to have one language on Europe for domestic consumption and one in talks with European and other international leaders. In his referendum speech and again at Davos, he called for a Europe that was more competitive, more open, less centralized, and less bureaucratic. Who can disagree with that?
But his reassuring words were followed by the news on Jan. 25 that British growth had again gone negative in the last quarter -- under Cameron's stewardship. The British economy is now smaller than when he took office in May 2010. On the same day, the European Commission announced it was fining Cameron's government €300,000 ($404,280) a day because of its failure to liberalize the U.K. energy market, while consumers complain of oligarchic gas and electricity firms pushing prices way above U.S. or European levels as they gouge profits and pay their executives eye-watering salaries.
Cameron presents his story as leading a pack of vigorous and visionary London politicians who are beating up on Brussels bureaucrats to fashion an EU in Britain's image and likeness, but a no-growth, market-rigging Britain is hardly in a good position to lecture Europe on its failings. The prime minister's narrative faithfully reflects the anti-EU discourse that has dominated most of the British media -- especially the big offshore-owned tabloids -- for two decades. Cameron talks glibly about renegotiation but, unfortunately for him, neither the European Commission nor the European Council of heads of state has the legal authority to open unilateral negotiations or rewrite treaties in order to refashion the EU in the manner Cameron needs to appease his Euroskeptic party and Rupert Murdoch.
Cameron needs to persuade 26 other governments and parliaments that opening a major treaty revision to satisfy Britain is something to be desired. His own deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, himself a former Brussels insider, says that such a "re-writing of the whole terms of" British membership is "wholly implausible." A new treaty would require a nightmarish ratification process involving referendums in countries like Denmark, France, and Ireland that would plunge Europe into years of inward-looking rows at a time when it still hasn't emerged from the worst economic crisis in its history.
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.