Prime Minister David Cameron giving the keynote speech on Britain's future in Europe, Bloomberg head office, London, Britain.
If there is one word that defined the EU in 2012, it was “Grexit.” The prospect of Greece crashing out of the Eurozone hovered over Europe like a dark cloud, threatening a thunderstorm but never delivering. With Greece’s continued membership in the euro looking more secure than it has in a while in these early days of 2013, a new word has captured the imagination of Europe-watchers: “Brexit”, or the possibility of a British departure from the European Union.
Prime Minister David Cameron gave a big speech on Britain and Europe in London on Wednesday morning. In it, he expressed his country’s dissatisfaction at the evolution of the European Union, in particular in the age of the euro crisis. Lamenting the slipping competitiveness of European economies and the mounting democratic deficit of the EU, he vowed to renegotiate the United Kingdom’s relationship with Brussels by clawing back as many powers as he could from the control of the EU bureaucracy. He also promised to put the new deal to a referendum at some point during the second term he hopes to win in the 2015 elections. A “no” vote in that referendum would spell a British exit.
Aside from its content, the history of Cameron’s speech is instructive. Repeatedly postponed over the last five months, it was recently announced that the speech would be given on January 22 in the Netherlands. That date, as Downing Street should have known, was bound to cause controversy. France and Germany were planning to celebrate—as indeed they did—the 50th anniversary of the Elysée Treaty, signed between general Charles De Gaulle and chancellor Adenauer to formalize the reconciliation of the two countries after World War II, in a series of grand events in the German capital. Both Paris and Berlin were peeved at Cameron’s plans to give his speech on Europe’s ills on a day meant for commemorating European unity, and they let him know about it. Cameron, who was said even to have considered Berlin as the venue for his major European address, decided to bring it forward by a four days. The bloody hostage crisis in Algeria made him postpone it again, though not before his aides had distributed some extracts to the press.
The diplomatic fracas about the date and location of the speech is emblematic of the United Kingdom’s perennial discomfort in dealing with Europe. “Heavy Fog in Channel; Continent Cut Off”: This is how the Times of London described the situation in the English Channel on a particularly misty day in 1957, at the height of the country post-imperial hangover. Britain refused to join the European Coal and Steel Community—the forerunner of the European Economic Community—or the EEC itself when it was founded in 1957. In subsequent years, pressure to join grew, in particular from British businesses eager to share in the economic successes of “the continent.” In 1973, the marriage that has recently been described as “forced” or “doomed” (one British Conservative MP with a literary flair called it “being shackled to a corpse”) finally took place, but London’s ambivalence towards the European project persisted.
Margaret Thatcher warned against the creation of a European “superstate,” John Major secured a British opt-out from the euro in 1992 and Tony Blair then made use of it to keep the United Kingdom out of the common currency. Britain also steered clear of the Schengen agreement, allowing passport-free travel between signatory states. In May 2010, David Cameron entered Downing Street propelled by the pro-European Liberal Democrats but heading a Conservative party in which to be a Europhile is as scandalous as being gay was considered thirty years ago.
By that time, the Eurozone crisis was heating up—Greece had been bailed out days before the British election. Many Tory MPs saw their chance and started agitating for a new, more distant relationship with Brussels. Last July, William Hague, the avowedly eurosceptic foreign minister and former party leader, launched what he called a “comprehensive audit” of EU powers in the UK, due to be completed in 2014. The Fresh Start group of Conservative MPs recently provided the prime minister with their own suggestions for repatriation, which included aspects of justice and policing, employment law, fisheries and financial services. Meanwhile, the right-wing UK Independence Party, openly campaigning for a British exit, keeps gaining in support and has become a real thorn in the Conservatives’ side.
These developments have placed Cameron in a bind, and led to Britain’s accidentally planned, not-quite-veto of the EU member-states’ fiscal compact in December 2011 (the compact went ahead despite Britain remaining on the sidelines). Asked recently by British business leaders whether he could guarantee that the United Kingdom would still be in the European Union in five years, Cameron equivocated. As Denis Macshane, a former Europe Minister under Tony Blair, explains, the British prime minister “has had to please three groups: his Tory MPs and the anti-EU press who want a Brexit or a semi-detached status; the business community and president Obama who want the UK to stay firmly in the EU; and the rest of the EU prime ministers, who do not want a new Treaty or intergovernmental conference. Each of these groups hold contradictory positions.”
A recent YouGov poll shows a plurality of British voters supporting “Brexit” as things stand, but a majority supporting continued membership after a renegotiation of Britain’s position. Cameron’s hope is that he will be able to get a deal that is substantial enough to satisfy sovereignty-minded little Englanders without provoking the fury of his EU partners, many of whom are exasperated by decades of British “exceptionalism” within the EU. It is an extremely delicate balancing act, especially given that, as MacShane puts it, “Europe is, for most Conservatives, what the Soviet Union was to American politicians in the 1950s”.
“Brexit” would not have the cataclysmic global economic effects of a country leaving the euro. Were it to happen, Britain would likely retain a free-trade relationship with the European Union. On foreign and security policy, the effects would also be minor, given the EU’s well-established inability to speak in one voice in such matters. But a British departure would still constitute a major blow to the prestige of the already wounded European project and would leave Britain, confused by the “heavy fog” of euroscepticism, cut off and diminished. Cameron knows this. Cameron is aware of all these precarious variables, but he may not be able to stem the momentum for ending the “forced marriage." If that happens, Europe may well be the end of him politically, just as it was for his two Conservative predecessors in Downing Street.