British PM promises vote on EU membership
Alarm bells went off in capitals all across Europe as British Prime Minister David Cameron announced that he would allow a nationwide referendum on Great Britain's continued membership in the European Union.
Would a British exit destroy the EU? That seems to be the consenus opinion in Washington and Brussels. England has always been more nationalistic than most of the rest of Europe and have zealously guarded their currency and independence while resisting sovereignty grabs by Brussels. It seems likely to be a close vote even with most of the establishment seeking a "yes" vote.
"I know there will be those who say the vision I have outlined will be impossible to achieve. That there is no way our partners will cooperate. That the British people have set themselves on a path to inevitable exit. And that if we aren't comfortable being in the E.U. after 40 years, we never will be," he said. "But I refuse to take such a defeatist attitude - either for Britain or for Europe."
"And when the referendum comes," he said, "I will campaign for it with all my heart and soul."
The speech was a defining moment in Mr. Cameron's political career, reflecting a belief that by wresting some powers back from the European Union, he can win the support of a grudging British public that has long been ambivalent - or actively hostile - toward the idea of European integration.
"We have the character of an island nation - independent, forthright, passionate in defense of our sovereignty," he said. "We can no more change this sensibility than drain the English Channel."
Coming a day after the leaders of France and Germany met in Berlin to celebrate a half-century of sometimes uneasy partnership, Mr. Cameron's plea for acknowledgment of British distinctions seemed to reflect some of the deepest political and philosophical differences between London and Continental Europe on integration.
British alliances with European powers has reflected an ambivalence toward the continent dating back hundreds of years. But for 4 decades, Britain has maintained membership in the EU, seeing advantages for British commerce in trade and exchange rates with the pound.
But the Brits have also fiercely resisted challenges to their sovereignty as Cameron explains:
Speaking later during a rowdy parliamentary session, Mr. Cameron said the areas where he wanted to see change included "social legislation, employment legislation, environmental legislation where Europe has gone far too far."
And the Conservative Party is also fearful of a challenge from the right on the EU. The Independence Party has been making inroads on the Conservative vote by advocating a complete break with the European Union. It seemed that the time was right to settle the question while using the EU referendum as a wedge issue in the 2015 parliamentary elections.
The drive to unite Europe - by force, or by dint of commerce and finance - has been going on for 1000 years. This latest incarnation of that impulse is in deep, deep, trouble as systemic weaknesses in the entire concept of a united Europe threaten the "Europe Project" like never before. Perhaps the Cameron gambit will be a wake up call in Germany and France that if any kind of an EU is to survive, accomodations not just with Great Britain, but other member nations must be made.
Otherwise, the project will collapse under the weight of debt and its own arrogant assumptions about what the free people of Europe need and want.