BRUSSELS – The outcome of the United Kingdom’s general election this week will set the direction the country will take in its long-term relations with the European Union. And yet, with the unfortunate exception of the UK Independence Party, the question went mostly unaddressed during the campaign. But voters know that it could soon move to the center of British politics, regardless of whether the Conservatives are returned to power or are replaced by Labour.
Britain is not quite certain about its role in Europe. It had hoped that a larger EU would be less integrated. But the EU’s enlargement in 2004 failed to stop the momentum toward “ever-closer union.” Of the ten countries that joined then, seven are now in the eurozone.
Whatever problems the UK faces now pale in comparison to those that would emerge if it were to withdraw from the EU. Indeed, the British people would likely realize only after the fact that the problems they attributed to the EU actually originate at home.
The problem now is that the British stance is strengthening the centrifugal forces now at work in the EU. Prime Minister David Cameron’s promise to hold a referendum on membership by 2017 if he is re-elected is not helpful in solving the problems that Britain and the rest of Europe face together: the need for higher growth and greater social inclusion amid unprecedented foreign-policy challenges.