Out of Europe? U.K.’s Cameron Pledges Referendum on E.U. Membership

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Matthew Lloyd / Bloomberg / Getty Images

Prime Minister David Cameron delivers a speech on Europe in London on Jan. 23, 2013

If coverage of David Cameron’s dramatic, pivotal speech on Britain and the European Union seems grudging, that may in part reflect the extraordinary sequences of mishaps and misadventures that preceded it. Early plans to hold the speech on Jan. 22 were hastily junked after French and German officials protested to Downing Street that this would hijack attention from celebrations in Berlin of 50 years of the Franco-German friendship treaty. Nor was Jan. 21 a workable alternative, with the eyes of the world more likely to be trained on Washington than Westminster. Britain’s Prime Minister had already agreed to speak on Jan. 24 at the World Economic Forum. Staged at a gilded ski resort in Switzerland, one of few remaining European nations not already in the E.U. or seeking to join, the WEF would hardly have provided an appropriate platform for a speech purporting to make the case for staying in the union to austerity-weary voters in the U.K. and other member countries.

These calculations left Downing Street spin doctors scrambling to bring the date forward to Jan. 18, only to postpone with equal haste after militants stormed a desert gas facility in Algeria, forcing Cameron to convene the government’s crisis committee. Notice of the change came too late to stop some of the bigger beasts of the British media jungle traveling all the way to the intended speech venue, in Amsterdam, at the perfect time to find themselves caught up in #snowmaggedon as they attempted to return home. By the time Cameron finally got to deliver his speech, at 8 a.m. on Jan. 23 in London, much of its meat had been prereleased, leaked, picked over and chewed. “It’s a shambles,” grumbled one of Britain’s better-known TV inquisitors as he slumped into his seat. A miasma of grumpiness hung above the assembled press, as pungent in its way as the stink that had unexpectedly enveloped parts of Southern England just a day earlier, after foul fumes from an accidental leak at a chemical plant in France wafted across the Channel.

(VIDEO: TIME Interviews David Cameron)

Cameron’s words caused noses to wrinkle in disgust across a far wider swath of Europe. That’s because, despite grudging reviews and a sense of anticlimax, this was a potent piece of work that, by promising a referendum on Britain staying in the E.U. or leaving it, quite possibly initiated divorce proceedings. Like many Dear John letters, the speech concealed its flinty heart under layers of tribute and nostalgic affection. Cameron spoke of the union’s genesis as a project of peace. “Healing [the] wounds of our history is the central story of the European Union,” he said. He acknowledged that membership enhanced British influence, not least in Washington:

It matters to our ability to get things done in the world. It matters to the United States and other friends around the world.

And he declared his deep belief in Britain’s European future, pledging to campaign for staying in the E.U. “with all my heart and all my soul.”

His audience, at home and in European capitals, quickly recognized this was no lovey-dovey replighting of troth. Cameron made his support for British membership contingent on a renegotiation of the terms of the membership and the nature of the E.U. itself. As the 17 nations of the euro zone move into a closer embrace in order to preserve the single currency, he is angling for a far more open relationship, a trade federation rather than an intimate union. His proposition provoked mixed emotions among his European partners — exasperation, irritation, a soupçon of pique, ein bisschen angst.

(MORE: British Conservatives: Not Very Conservative by U.S. Standards)

The referendum would not take place until after Britain’s 2015 elections. “Cameron risks to paralyze the European Union for years,” e-mailed Gunther Krichbaum, a prominent German politician who chairs his national Parliament’s committee for European affairs. Speaking to TIME in Berlin ahead of the speech, but when much of its core message had already been trailed, Krichbaum’s Christian Democrat colleague Ursula von der Leyen, who serves in the German Cabinet as Minister for Labor and Social Affairs, issued a more poignant warning:

It would be a terrible loss for Europe if Britain were to leave and I think for Britain too. The bonds between European countries are much more profound than most people are aware of. We share a common European history that hasn’t always been a wonderful or lucky or happy history, but we share the same historic experiences. Europe is a result of having learned from war, division and disaster, but also human rights, dignity and reconciliation. All these things are the European Union and that is very precious in a globalized world.

If Britain’s partners are worried by the specter of an in-out referendum, they are not surprised by it. The U.K. maintains a tradition of demanding E.U. exceptions and opt-outs. Margaret Thatcher famously wielded her influence and her handbag in 1984 to win Britain a hefty rebate from its annual contribution to the budget. Cameron aims to emulate her handbaggery to wrest visible concessions from the E.U.

(MORE: Can Britain’s Conservatives Escape Thatcher’s Legacy?)

What his speech didn’t make at all clear is exactly what those concessions might be. Last year his government launched what it calls a “review of the balance of competences,” an audit that Cameron characterized as being designed “to give us an informed and objective analysis of where the E.U. helps and where it hampers.” The review might, in other words, provide the basis of the shopping list of renegotiation demands that Cameron will presumably set out as the precondition for his continued support for staying in the E.U. The mood music in continental Europe suggests there’s little chance of achieving meaningful concessions without a major fight and even then, probably not. For now, Cameron is sidestepping the question of whether failure to secure these concessions would see him asking British voters to use the referendum to dump the E.U.

The referendum may not be held at all if Cameron fails to win an overall majority at the next election. His Liberal-Democrat coalition partners oppose a referendum; so does the Labour opposition. Cameron’s sudden conversion to an in-out referendum — an idea he explicitly rejected in the recent past — would appear to owe as much to electioneering as to conviction politics. A noisy contingent of Conservative MPs are euroskeptic; many Tories worry that the unambiguously euroskeptic U.K. Independence Party will continue stealing Tory votes.

So Britain, in practice, faces the possibility of not one referendum but two: the 2015 elections and then a plebiscite on the E.U. And with many Britons blaming the E.U. for the economic turmoil depressing growth and killing off jobs, the single life may well look more attractive to them than the single market.

MORE: Mario Draghi: The Man Who Would Save Europe

7 comments
deconstructiva
deconstructiva

Thanks, Catherine, another post par excellence, as always. Bad timing for Cameron to release speech during the French mercaptan release, though no doubt media coverage of THAT must've been a gas. As I've commented before, as a LONG distance outsider I've been skeptical of Cameron / Clegg coalition (too many differences? like Obama and Tea Party alliance - not gonna happen), but might trying to leave the EU be the tipping point if Cameron keeps pushing? I don't know if Cameron's desire to fly solo is a clash of conservative / independent worldview vs. United Europe vision  OR  is yet another clash between UK vs. traditional rivals France and Germany ...let alone THEIR rivalries - makes us wonder how well Merkel and Hollande get along, unlike past "Merkozy" tryst, but I digress. 

JohnDahodi
JohnDahodi

As such UK is nothing more than a puppet state of the USA in the EU. Also, UK cannot survive without the help of the USA and undercutting the EU. Rather than to keep disloyal partner to sleep with and enjoy the bed, it would be much better if the UK would depart and have her own destiny outside the EU. In that case, the economical fall of the UK will be accelerated and soon the great Empire, who ruled over the world will be divided in to several pieces and vanished in the dusty clouds.

Ibvook
Ibvook

I think that if UK indeed would like to leave EU, they would do it now. But they know what this could mean e.g. to their economy. The only reason is to get new argument in disussion with other EU countries and in next elections in UK. 

PaulAbbotson
PaulAbbotson

It is easy to empathise with most Britons who were brought up to believe in Westminster democracy, despite its flaws. Especially when the EU is becoming a European Nightmare based on out dated and voodoo economic theories. None of the high priests of the EU were elected by European citizens, a weird bunch of aging has-beens who feel free to waste other people’s money at the slightest whim.

What’s there to like about the EU? Luckily Britons (for Pete’s sake don’t call them “Britishers” they hate that term too often used by the US media). They made it clear they had no intention to abandon the pound in favour of the Euro as Tony Blair had once hinted he might ask them to do. Citizens of the Euro zone countries are even worse off than those Europeans outside it.

Although Britain has been closer to the arthritic European economies through trade in goods and services, this is akin to the result of trying to teach a cat to eat veggies instead of flesh. Traditionally GB has looked overseas for power, influence and trade and has retained its own distinctive homespun culture. I don’t think most Britons would mind if the food on their table once again came from the old Dominions of Canada, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. Trade with US is also traditional dating back to the colonial era. The love-hate relationship with “America” is more of a bond between distant cousins than a divisive issue. Britons love to make fun of “Americans” who reciprocate in kind. How many Hollywood villains have real or fake English accents and foxy wickedness? Even if portrayed as the good guys it is usually as butlers or nannies. Nevertheless, John Bull and Uncle Sam would make better partners than Bobo Barros or Herman Van Rompuy.

lost_in_cells
lost_in_cells

We Brits are for free trade, the single market, co-operation over policing and with the military (such as supporting France with Mali) and over other issues which can only be dealt with internationally such as the environment.  What we are against are unaccountability and protectionism such as with the Common Agricultural Policy.   We are also against waste, such as the EU having two headquarters, in Brussels and moving to Strasbourg every so often.  What we want back is control over our own social and employment policies and laws which should be the remit of Parliament and not the Commission.  

These things can and hopefully will be worked out over time, and I am sure that certain compromises like with anything in life will have to be made, but the EU used to be about our mutual prosperity, enriching through trade etc.  We need to get back to that.


pendragon05
pendragon05

Some of my closest friends are British but you know, the UK will end up like Greece if they don't get out now.

PeteBerger
PeteBerger

I can't wait until these fags are leaving Europe.  They are against everything, take part in nothing, and drive on the wrong side of the street.