BERLIN – When placed under too much strain, chains tend to break at the weakest link. Figuratively speaking, the same applies to the European Union. So the entire world quite naturally assumed that any process of EU disintegration would start primarily in the crisis-ridden European south (Greece, first and foremost). But, as British Prime Minister David Cameron has now demonstrated, the European chain is most likely to break not at its weakest link, but at its most irrational.
The United Kingdom – the homeland of pragmatism and realism, a country of unflappable principles and unmatched adaptability that stoically gave up its empire after successfully defending Europe’s freedom against Nazi Germany – has now lost its way. More precisely, it has been led astray by the Conservative Party’s ideological fantasy that certain EU powers can and should be returned to British sovereignty.
The UK’s national interests have not changed, and no fundamental shifts within the EU have worked against those interests. What has changed is Britain’s domestic politics: a prime minister too weak to control his roughly 100 anti-European backbenchers (call them the “High Tea Party”) in the House of Commons, and a Conservative establishment wary of the UK Independence Party’s rise, which could cost the Tories enough votes on the right to give Labour an electoral advantage.
Cameron claims that he does not want the UK to leave the EU. But his strategy – “renegotiation” of EU membership, followed by a British referendum on the new agreement – is the product of two illusions: first, that he can ensure a positive outcome, and, second, that the EU is able and willing to give him the concessions that he wants.
In fact, there is good reason to believe that such a course would take on a dynamic of its own, possibly leading to an unintended British exit from the EU. That would be a severe setback for the EU; for the British, blundering through history, it would be a veritable disaster.
While Britain surely would survive outside the EU, the quality of its existence is another matter. By exiting the EU, the UK would severely damage its economic interests, losing both the single market and London’s role as a financial center. An exit would also harm Britain’s geopolitical interests, both in Europe (where, ironically, it favors EU enlargement) and, worldwide, in its global standing and special relationship with the United States (which has made clear its preference for a European UK).
Unfortunately, Cameron’s track record in European politics does not inspire confidence in his ability to manage a different outcome. When, in 2009, he ordered the Conservative MEPs to withdraw from the European People’s Party, the Europe-wide grouping of center-right political forces, he merely deprived the Tories – now consigned to sit with the sectarians and obscurantists – of any influence in the European Parliament. By weakening the UK’s position within the EU, he ended up strengthening the Euro-skeptics within his party.
But, while Cameron should know from grim experience what is looming, it seems that he has abandoned rational considerations. Indeed, the belief that the EU would renegotiate Britain’s membership terms – which assumes, further, that Germany would not object – borders on magical thinking. Such a precedent would be applicable to the other member states, which would mean the end of the EU.
With all due respect to the UK, dismantling the EU as the price of its continued membership is an absurd idea. Cameron should recognize that his strategy cannot be allowed (even if he fears that a few cosmetic corrections to the treaty won’t help him at home).
In the meantime, the Tories risk losing their way on a crucial issue – reform of the relationship between the eurozone and non-euro EU members – if they try to use it as leverage to renegotiate the various European treaties. Britain knows that the euro’s survival requires much closer political integration, and also that London’s role as a financial center – as important for the UK as the nuclear industry is for France and the auto industry is for Germany – would be greatly damaged if the euro should fail.
Although no one should expect the British to join the euro any time soon, political leadership within the EU requires the acumen to take account of the central interests of one’s own country and those of the other member states without indulging in threats. This, however, requires an adequate understanding of those interests and a willingness to cooperate on the basis of mutual trust, which should be a given within the European family.
Speeches, particularly when delivered by leaders of great nations, can be useful, irrelevant, or dangerous. Cameron’s long-planned speech on Europe was postponed time and again. Perhaps he should have taken that as a sign that he should rethink his position.
He still can, before it is too late. The best starting point would be a re-reading of Winston Churchill’s famous speech in Zurich in 1946. “We must build a kind of United States of Europe,” urged Britain’s greatest twentieth-century statesman. That remains our task – and Britain’s – to this day.