Have we just witnessed a cynical attempt to induce an old ally to sacrifice itself for the benefit of the United States? Possibly: Foreign policy is not for the morally squeamish.
Look no further than Philip Gordon, the U.S.’s assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs. In January, Mr. Gordon hurled himself into Britain’s contentious debate over the EU with the observation that America viewed the U.K.’s continued participation in that wretched union as “essential and critical to the United States.” This did not play well with Blighty’s euroskeptic hordes, a crowd all too willing to suspect that Uncle Sam takes John Bull for granted. An indignant Nigel Farage, leader of the insurgent euroskeptic United Kingdom Independence party (UKIP), snarked that, as the U.K. had rejected the Americans’ suggestion that it might lend a hand in Vietnam, the U.K. would also “say no to them over the EU.”
Undeterred, Barack Obama waded into the controversy a week or so later, releasing some comments shortly before David Cameron was due to deliver a much-anticipated speech on Britain’s role in the EU. The timing was intended to stiffen the back of a prime minister under immense domestic political pressure from his euroskeptic critics. The president began softly enough, politely underscoring “America’s close alliance with the United Kingdom,” but then came to the point: The United States values “a strong U.K. in a strong European Union.” Following Cameron’s speech, that message was echoed by Joe Biden, never a man afraid to repeat the words of others, during the course of a visit to Europe earlier this month: “We believe the United Kingdom is stronger as a result of its membership [in the EU]. And we believe the EU is stronger with the U.K.’s involvement.”
On one level, that was not so far from what Cameron had ended up saying. In his speech, he called for a reformed, “leaner, less bureaucratic union . . . with the single market at its heart,” a union open for business with the rest of the world, a decentralized union that would return powers to its member states but that would have room within it for a smaller group of countries on a pathway to “much closer economic and political integration,” but no sin bin for those who did not. If that is a vision in any way connected with reality, the State Department ought to be able to relax.
Of course, it is not. Fears among the EU’s leadership (alluded to by Cameron in his speech) that a restructuring on the lines he proposed could lead to the union’s unraveling will mean that it will never take place. If Britain is to loosen its ties to Brussels, it will have to do so on its own. That would involve persuading all the other 26 EU countries to go along (since changes to the EU treaty require unanimity). That’s not going to happen either.
No matter, Cameron has guaranteed British voters a referendum once his implausible negotiations for an impossible deal have been concluded. It will, he explained, be “a very simple in or out choice. To stay in the EU on these new terms; or come out altogether.” So would that be something for the White House to worry about? Not really. The Conservative manifesto for the general election, due in 2015, will include a promise to hold a referendum. But here’s the catch. The Conservatives will almost surely not win that election, for any number of reasons that we don’t need to go into now.
Even in the astounding event of a Tory victory, what then? Doubtless there would be an elaborate pantomime of negotiation — there is still a large constituency within the EU (including, most importantly, Germany) that would like the Brits to stay in — and doubtless a few crumbs of concession would be tossed Cameron’s way. Indeed there were sections in his speech where the prime minister already seemed to be signaling his willingness to find a way to accept them. For older Britons, this brings back memories of the 1975 referendum that rubber-stamped a cosmetically “renegotiated” deal with the precursor to the EU. And a rerun of that would probably be what they would get.
Disregard the polls currently showing that a majority in the U.K. would opt for Brexit (yes, that’s the term). That’s just venting. Given their druthers, because of anxiety about what lies outside, reinforced by skillful scaremongering (and there’s been quite a bit of that lately), most Brits would prefer to remain within the EU, albeit one that is less intrusive. The nature of the EU — an “ever closer union” — means that that is not on offer. But presented with a prettily packaged excuse to avoid confronting that unpleasant reality, and battered by warnings from the great and the good of the supposedly hideous implications of quitting, the British electorate would almost certainly stick with the devil it knows.
So Cameron’s gambit is highly unlikely to get anywhere, let alone lead to Britain’s escape from the EU, and yet the Obama administration still seems oddly concerned. In part this may be a feint, aimed not at London but at Brussels, Berlin, and Paris, crafted to demonstrate to a bloc of some consequence that the Brits might be euroskeptic but their cousins across the pond most definitely are not.