The Eclipse of British Reason

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.