British prime minister David Cameron delivered today his long-awaited speech on his country's relationship with the European Union. He had been scheduled to speak last week but delayed due to the twin crises in Mali and Algeria. The speech's substantive message was known well in advance: Cameron called for a renegotiation of the relationship, to be followed by an eventual referendum on continued British membership.
Even with the punchline broadcast ahead of time, however, the speech was notable for its tone. For a major Western leader, Cameron struck a remarkably unsentimental note on international cooperation. Several times, he described the international realm in almost zero-sum terms:
[T]oday the main, over-riding purpose of the European Union is different: not to win peace, but to secure prosperity.
The challenges come not from within this continent but outside it. From the surging economies in the East and South. Of course a growing world economy benefits us all, but we should be in no doubt that a new global race of nations is underway today. A race for the wealth and jobs of the future....
Competitiveness demands flexibility, choice and openness - or Europe will fetch up in a no-man’s land between the rising economies of Asia and market-driven North America. [emphasis added]
In the midst of this global race for affluence and influence, the prime minister's central question was what Britain gets out of EU membership:
[W]e come to the European Union with a frame of mind that is more practical than emotional.
For us, the European Union is a means to an end – prosperity, stability, the anchor of freedom and democracy both within Europe and beyond her shores - not an end in itself.
We insistently ask: How? Why? To what end?
As Cameron acknowledged, speaking of the European Union as a simple matter of national cost and benefit—rather than as some kind of project in enlightened governance or moral mission—is unusual in European circles. For some audiences that jarring tone, and the prime minister's willingness to explicitly contemplate exit, may overwhelm the second half of the speech. Having insisted that Britain must coldly assess the EU's value, Cameron proceeded to run through several of the arguments for and against continued membership—and concluded that remaining in the EU is resoundingly in the British interest.