David Cameron's high stakes EU gamble

British prime minister David Cameron will deliver a major speech on the country's relationship with the European Union this Friday. Via Reuters:

"He sees it as important to set out his view about it being in the British national interest to remain in the European Union, though (with) a changed relationship," the spokesman said.

Cameron has repeatedly said he wants Britain to remain in the EU but has made it clear he intends to try to repatriate a wide range of powers from the bloc in policy areas where his ruling Conservative party believes Brussels' influence has become overbearing and pernicious.

The government's current strategy is to seek reform in the relationship with the EU (including, likely, the repatriation of some powers) and then subject the new relationship to a referendum, likely in 2017 or 2018. That approach has led certain European leaders to  charge that Britain is "blackmailing" other EU members by holding out the implicit threat of withdrawal.

Others, including the Obama administration, are concerned that by opening fundamental questions about the relationship British leaders may be unleashing a process they cannot control. Anders Aslund argues that Britain is perilously close to a catastrophic decision:

If the United Kingdom were to have a referendum on its relationship with the European Union and actually depart, it would lose most of its relevance in Europe and with the outside world, notably the United States.

With its departure from the European Union, the United Kingdom would more specifically lose all its influence with the European Union. It would decline to the kind of dependence and high costs of financial contributions that Switzerland and Norway face. Little wonder, that the elites of those two countries want their nations to join the European Union.

A British exit could only be understood as a stab in the back to the European project, so the United Kingdom should not expect any sympathy. Such alienation would in all probability lead to the United Kingdom suffering worse conditions than Switzerland and Norway.  A departing United Kingdom cannot take its access to the much-appreciated single European market as granted.

Less commented upon has been the danger that Cameron's strategy poses to the sovereigntist bloc in British politics. If the renegotiation-and-referendum strategy succeeds, the prime minister will have dealt a strong, and perhaps lethal blow to the Euroskeptic wing of his own party.

The Multilateralist

Will U.S. pressure on Britain over EU membership backfire?

Earlier this week, U.S. assistant secretary of state Philip Gordon took it upon himself to counsel the British on their relationship with the European Union. Gordon joined other notables, including European Council president Herman Van Rompuy, billionaire Richard Branson, and top German officials, in expressing concern about movement toward a referendum on EU membership. Via yesterday's New York Times:

In London, Mr. Gordon indicated that any British withdrawal from the union would be unwelcome and said that referendums held by other nations on European Union agreements “have sometimes turned countries inward.”

“We have a growing relationship with the E.U. as an institution, which has an increasing voice in the world, and we want to see a strong British voice in that E.U.,” he told British reporters, according to a transcript released by the United States Embassy in London. “That is in the American interest. We welcome an outward-looking E.U. with Britain in it.” He added: “Britain is such a special partner of the United States — that shares our values, shares our interests, has significant resources to bring to the table. More than most others, its voice within the European Union is essential and critical for the United States.”

Launching such a public intervention was a curious choice for the Obama administration. The British relationship with the EU is a sensitive matter that touches on deep questions of national identity, and Euroskeptic British politicans have reacted to the American intervention with predictable annoyance:

Tory MP Bernard Jenkin said today that the US had not "got a clue".

"The Americans don't understand Europe. They have a default position that sometimes the United States of Europe is going to be the same as the United States of America. They haven't got a clue," he told BBC Radio Five Live.

Another eurosceptic Tory MP, Peter Bone, said Mr Gordon should "butt out" and that it was "nothing to do with the Americans".

He added: "It's like us trying to tell Germany or France how to run their affairs. It's quite ridiculous and it's not what you'd expect from a member of the senior executive in the USA, and I hope that the president will slap him down very quickly."

It's at least possible that the intense external pressure could make it harder for prime minister David Cameron to back down on the referendum question. If he does shelve the idea, he'll now appear to have knuckled under to both Brussels and Washington. Some Tory lawmakers are already pointing out that whether British EU membership serves U.S. interests is of questionable relevance:

Eurosceptics delivered a fierce rebuke to America today after the Obama administration publicly voiced concerns about David Cameron’s plans for an EU referendum.

Conservatives urged Washington to mind its own business and said the Prime Minister should stand firm. Tory MP for Esher, Dominic Raab, hit back: “I think Britain should do what’s in its interest, not what’s convenient for the Americans.”