Cameron tied the renegotiation and subsequent referendum to his reelection in 2015. If he wins, he says he’ll try to reshape the bloc so that more powers go back to the member countries. His speech is a blatant attempt to dramatically change the environment in which he seeks reelection. With the British economy contracting, that climate looks hostile now.
The self-orientation of Cameron’s speech makes it seem oddly disingenuous, wrapping Britain’s request for more special treatment into a pan-European vision. It comes close to blackmailing the rest of Europe by demanding: Give us what we want, by the time we want it or we are out. With this strategy, Cameron has created a cohort of 26 European prime ministers who will quietly oppose his reelection.
His approach is also fraught with risk. He can hardly control the outcome of the process that he has now set in motion. It is unlikely that the 26 European partners will want what he wants, namely the renegotiation of the European Union’s fundamental treaties.
And his timeline guarantees uncertainty for investors for years to come since the referendum will only happen in 2017, contingent upon Mr. Cameron’s reelection. The strategy is geopolitical kabuki, virtually assuring turmoil in Europe for another half decade, thereby postponing Europe’s emergence as an actor on the world stage.
On the other hand, Cameron’s plans perfectly capture the idiosyncrasies of Britain’s relationship with the continent since his approach cannot simply be dismissed as outright anti-European.
He’s pursuing a referendum, but he doesn’t want its result to be a British exit, or “Brexit.” It is entirely legitimate for a British prime minister to sketch out a vision for the future of Europe that doesn’t fully align with the continental mainstream. In fact, in his sharp critique of the EU today, Cameron speaks truth to Brussels. Many of his inconvenient insights deserve to be listened to and, frankly, acted upon.