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Does Europe Need Britain?

NEW YORK – Many people in the United Kingdom believe that their country can do perfectly well outside the European Union. Members of the UK Independence Party even think that Britain would do better, as do a considerable number of Conservative “Euro-skeptics.” They dream of Britain as a kind of Singapore of the West, a commercial powerhouse ruled from the City of London.

That is why Prime Minister David Cameron felt obliged to offer the British people a referendum on a simple question: in or out. Cameron does not personally want Britain to leave the EU, but he knows that some form of democratic consent is needed for future British governments to settle the matter.

The year of the promised referendum, 2017, is comfortably far away. Many things may change in the meantime. If the eurozone forges ahead, what countries outside the zone do may not matter much anymore. Moreover, other Europeans may end up agreeing with Cameron that ever closer political union in Europe is undesirable – if they have a choice, that is, which is by no means certain.

In the meantime, there is another question to be considered: how many Europeans want Britain to stay in the EU? The answer depends partly on nationality. The smaller northern countries, such as the Netherlands, have traditionally wanted Britain to be in. Without Britain, they would be bossed around by France, and even more so by Germany. And yet, as memories of World War II fade, more and more people in the Netherlands and Scandinavia feel content to be under Germany’s powerful wings.