David Cameron’s Dangerous Game
MATTHIAS MATTHIJS is Assistant Professor of International Political Economy at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.See more by this author
Despite his innate caution and usually sound political instincts, British Prime Minister David Cameron is gambling with his country’s future. In January, in a long-anticipated speech, he called for a wide-ranging renegotiation of the terms of the United Kingdom’s membership in the European Union and promised to put the result up for a straight in-or-out popular referendum by the end of 2017 (assuming his party wins the next election, due in 2015). A British exit from the EU is now more likely than ever -- and it would be disastrous not only for the United Kingdom but also for the rest of Europe and the United States.
If London does ultimately cut the rope, it will not be the result of rational political or economic calculations. British Euroskepticism boils down to a visceral dislike of Brussels -- the host of a number of European institutions and the EU’s de facto capital -- on the part of an ill-informed conservative minority that clings to an antiquated notion of national sovereignty. These sentiments are on display every day in the right-wing tabloids, which play on voters’ fears with vitriolic commentary and sensationalistic headlines, such as “EU Wants to Merge UK With France” and “EU Will Grab Britain’s Gas,” both of which recently appeared in the Daily Express.
By caving in to the demands of the right wing of his party, Cameron appears to be falling into the same trap that his predecessors fell into. Both Margaret Thatcher and John Major, the previous two Conservative prime ministers, were eventually thrown out of office as their party tore itself apart over the issue of European integration during the late 1980s and mid-1990s. In 1995, these divisions among the Conservatives led a young Labour opposition leader named Tony Blair to ridicule Major on the floor of the House of Commons, scoffing, “I lead my party; he follows his.” Even Cameron himself, back in 2006, less than a year after he took over the Conservative Party, wisely counseled his colleagues to “stop banging on about Europe” if they ever wanted to win elections again.