Eclipse of British Reason

David Cameron’s ‘magical thinking’ on the re-negotiation of EU membership

Opinion | Joschka Fischer | February 2013

When placed under too much strain, chains tend to break at the weakest link. Figuratively speaking, the same applies to the European Union. So most assumed that any process of EU disintegration would start in the crisis-ridden European south (Greece first and foremost). But, as British Prime Minister David Cameron has now demonstrated, the European chain is most likely to break not at its weakest link, but at its most irrational.

The United Kingdom – the homeland of pragmatism and realism, a country of unflappable principles and unmatched adaptability – has now lost its way. More precisely, it has been led astray by the Conservative Party’s ideological fantasy that certain EU powers can and should be returned to British sovereignty.

The U.K.’s national interests have not changed, and no fundamental shifts within the EU have worked against them. What has changed is Britain’s domestic politics: a prime minister too weak to control his roughly 100 anti-European backbenchers – call them the "High Tea Party" – in the House of Commons, and a Conservative establishment wary of the U.K. Independence Party’s rise, which could cost the Tories enough votes on the right to give Labour an electoral advantage.

Cameron claims that he does not want the U.K. to leave the EU. But his strategy – "renegotiation" of EU membership, followed by a British referendum on the new agreement – is the product of two illusions: first, that he can ensure a positive outcome, and, second, that the EU is able and willing to concede what he wants.

In fact, such a course might well take on a dynamic of its own, possibly leading to an unintended British exit from the EU. That would be a severe setback for the EU; for the British, blundering through history, it would be a veritable disaster.


Cameron’s uninspiring track record

While Britain surely would survive outside the EU, how well is another matter. By exiting the EU, the U.K. would severely damage its economic interests, losing both the single market and London’s role as a financial centre. An exit would also harm Britain’s geopolitical interests, both in Europe (where, ironically, it favours EU enlargement) and, worldwide, in its global standing and special relationship with the United States (which has made clear its preference for a European U.K.).

Unfortunately, Cameron’s track record in European politics does not inspire confidence. When, in 2009, he ordered the Conservative MEPs to withdraw from the European People’s Party of centre-right political forces, he merely deprived the Tories of any influence in the European Parliament. And by weakening the U.K.’s position, he ended up strengthening the Eurosceptics within his party.

But, while Cameron should know from grim experience what is looming, his actions say otherwise. Indeed, the belief that the EU would renegotiate Britain’s membership terms – which assumes, further, that Germany would not object – borders on magical thinking.

Such a precedent would be applicable to the other member states, which would mean the end of the EU. With all due respect to the U.K., dismantling the EU as the price of its continued membership is an absurd idea. Cameron should recognise that this cannot be allowed.

In the meantime, the Tories risk losing their way on a crucial issue – reform of the relationship between the eurozone and non-euro EU members. Britain knows that the euro’s survival requires closer political integration, and also that London’s role as a financial centre – as important for the UK as the nuclear industry is for France and the auto industry is for Germany – would be greatly damaged if the euro should fail.

Although no one should expect the British to join the euro any time soon, political leadership within the EU requires the acumen to take account of the central interests of one’s own country and those of the other member states without indulging in threats. This, however, requires understanding those interests and co-operating on the basis of trust, which should be a given within the European family.

Speeches by leaders of great nations can be useful, irrelevant, or dangerous. Cameron’s long-planned speech on Europe was postponed time and again, perhaps a sign that he should rethink his position.  The best starting point would be re-reading Winston Churchill’s famous speech in Zurich in 1946.

"We must build a kind of United States of Europe," urged Britain’s greatest 20th century statesman. That remains our task – and Britain’s – to this day.


Joschka Fischer, Germany’s foreign minister and vice-chancellor from 1998 to 2005, was a leader in the German Green Party for almost 20 years.


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