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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.

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