The Battle for Britain

LONDON – The Islamic State’s attack in Paris in November was the latest crisis to delay Britain’s bid to renegotiate its membership in the European Union, ahead of a planned referendum on whether to maintain the relationship. First Greece, then refugees, and now terrorism have dominated the diplomatic agenda instead.

On December 3, Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron officially abandoned hopes of clinching a deal with other EU leaders at their summit on December 17-18. He is now aiming for an agreement in February. The delay amounts to a serious blow: While the deal itself is unlikely to persuade many undecided Britons to vote to stay in the EU, it is a prerequisite for Cameron to begin campaigning for that outcome. Well-funded anti-EU campaigners, who have plenty of allies in the media, thus have at least two more months, virtually unopposed, to win over wavering Conservatives. With polls showing the two sides in a dead heat, the risk of Brexit is rising by the day.

To be sure, security fears in the wake of the Paris attacks could swing some voters toward deciding to stay in the EU. When people are fearful, they tend to be more risk-averse and thus more likely to stick with the status quo. Combating cross-border terrorism is also an area where the value of EU cooperation ought to be self-evident. In a November 10 speech at Chatham House, Cameron emphasized the benefits of EU membership for Britain’s national security.

But the conflation of terrorism, immigration, and EU membership could also push British voters to reject Europe. Polls suggest that immigration is the top concern among British voters, and the fact that at least one of the Paris terrorists may have entered the EU through Greece posing as a Syrian refugee has accentuated the public’s fears.