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David Cameron and the EU’s Waterloo

PRINCETON – Two hundred years ago this month, at the Battle of Waterloo, Napoleon Bonaparte’s defeat at the hands of an allied army, led by the Duke of Wellington, reshaped Europe’s future. Britain may now be poised to do so once again.

The United Kingdom, whose new majority Conservative government has pledged to hold a referendum on European Union membership by the end of 2017, perhaps even next year, is not the outlier that it is often portrayed as being. Indeed, it is at the vanguard of the EU’s institutional atrophy. Even if it does retain its EU membership, the UK will continue to move steadily away from Europe. With more attractive commercial opportunities elsewhere, most European countries will follow suit.

For the EU, meeting the UK’s demands – to restrict benefits for migrant workers, limit financial regulation that could hurt the City of London, and disavow the goal of “ever closer union” – would require a fundamental transformation, including utterly unfeasible changes to the treaties that underpin European institutions. The discussion has thus turned to the possibility of providing the UK with a special status or allowing it to opt out of more EU provisions.

But, given intensifying doubts about the benefits of integration, even that solution would risk unraveling the EU. By emphasizing that Europe no longer offers an economic dividend, the UK’s move away from the EU will spur ever louder calls for change elsewhere. Simply put, talk of “Brexit” has exposed Europe’s economic and political fault lines – and there is no going back.