Prime Minister David Cameron said Wednesday he will offer British citizens a vote on whether to leave the European Union if his party wins the next election, a move which could trigger alarm among fellow member states.
He acknowledged that public disillusionment with the EU is "at an all-time high," using a long-awaited speech in central London to say that the terms of Britain's membership in the bloc should be revised and the country's citizens should have a say.
Cameron proposed Wednesday that his Conservative Party renegotiate the U.K.'s relationship with the European Union if it wins the next general election, expected in 2015.
"Once that new settlement has been negotiated, we will give the British people a referendum with a very simple in or out choice to stay in the EU on these new terms. Or come out altogether," Cameron said. "It will be an in-out referendum."
[. . .] Cameron stressed that his first priority is renegotiating the EU treaty — not leaving the bloc.
"I say to our European partners, frustrated as some of them no doubt are by Britain's attitude: work with us on this," he said.
Much of the criticism directed at Cameron has accused him of trying an "a la carte" approach to membership in the bloc and seeking to play by some but not all of its rules.
Speaking as a Canadian familiar with Québec's intermittent flirtation with the idea of separatism, I've a few things to point out.
- Much of British history towards political Europe is ill-informed. One thing that frequently comes up in Euroskeptic discourse is a hostility towards the European Court of Human Rights, a supranational legal institution associated not with the European Union but with the entirely separate Council of Europe. Too much critical detail goes unnoticed, or unknown.
- Much like Québec separatists who confidently assume that after a "Oui" majority in a referendum the province could negotiate whatever arrangement it would like with a rump Canada, even a nominally pro-European Union politician like David Cameron seems to be making the mistake of assuming that a threat of separation will lead Britain's European partners to make whatever changes the British government might want. I'm very skeptical of this. Perhaps more likely is a complete breakdown of the federation--in their own ways, the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia came apart when this brinkmanship occurred.
- Many British Euroskeptics also seem to believe that, if the United Kingdom left the European Union, not only the United States but the entire Commonwealth would welcome the erstwhile founder of the Anglo-Saxon world. I can speak only for Canada, but there is no body of radically pro-Commonwealth sentiment in Canada. Canadian identity is no longer bound up with the Commonwealth in the way it was a half-century ago. If anything, British departure from the European Union would make the United Kingdom a less desirable partner relative to other European countries of a similar size.
- British departure from the European Union would be a catastrophe for the country. Unless a non-EU United Kingdom follows the lead of Switzerland and Norway in accepting European Union regulations while lacking any voice in formulating them, the United Kingdom will be outside of the various markets. What will happen to, among other things, Britain's financial sector? (Frankfurt and Dublin will do nicely.)
- I can't help but wonder what the consequences for Scotland might be if Britain departed. Could we get a Scottish separatism invigorated by the desire to remain in, or return to, the European Union?