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
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.
JOHANNES EISELE/AFP/Getty Images