The idea that Britain should use its influence to remake the European Union is not an unreasonable one. There is a strong argument that the EU is on an unsustainable path — the eurocrisis is creating a dangerous divide between the periphery and core, the eurozone is encroaching upon the EU, there is a yawning gap between the people and their leaders, and Europe has much to do if it is to be competitive in a world dominated by the US and China. Britain is a country with the diplomatic skill and heft to move the EU in the right direction.
Unfortunately, this idea is not on the table. What prime minister David Cameron has offered is a referendum that strikes many international observers as diplomatically irrational.
Regardless of the pros and cons of membership, the four-year wait till a vote is held creates immense uncertainty about the British economy and Britain’s role in the world. Investment decisions, diplomatic engagements and countless other initiatives will be placed on hold as long as it is unclear whether Britain will be in or out.
However, there is an even greater risk with the prime minister’s approach. It is much more likely to lead to an exit than his publicly stated position suggests. Cameron has promised a vote if he renegotiates the terms of Britain’s membership with the European Union. This way, he can have it both ways — rail against the status quo, but claim he is in favour of membership.
By implication, he has not promised a vote if he is unable to renegotiate the terms of membership. This is a rather gaping loophole. From the perspective of the rest of the EU, the easiest path is to refuse to renegotiate — hence, no referendum and no risk of Britain leaving. And it appears as if this is exactly what is happening.