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British Prime Minister David Cameron's audacious vision for Europe

British Prime Minister David Cameron's vision for the Europe Union is blatantly self-serving. His promise to let the Brits vote on EU membership is designed to ensure his own reelection. But his plan for a leaner and less intrusive union may also win some friends on the continent.

By Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff / February 1, 2013

Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron walks past a map of Europe after making a speech in London on holding a referendum on staying in the European Union Jan. 23. Op-ed contributor Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff writes: 'Whatever the shortcomings' of Cameron’s speech, 'it should be held to its constructive parts. A leaner, more competitive, and less intrusive European Union with a more centralized "eurocore" may be a worthy goal.'

Matt Dunham/AP

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Washington

British Prime Minister David Cameron has certainly thrown a wrench into the workings of the European Union – laying out an audacious plan to renegotiate British membership in the EU and then have British voters decide whether to stay in or leave this fixture of post-war Europe.

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It’s a stunningly self-serving, political move on Mr. Cameron’s part. It’s also fraught with serious risk, both for himself and the 27-member union. His plan has an upside, too. It puts pressure on the member states to improve their competitiveness, and it challenges the EU bureaucratic blob to turn into a more workable and responsive union.

The British prime minister laid out his vision in a speech last week, and a good part of it could be read as an attempt to control the rebellious Euroskeptic wing of his Conservative Party by giving them some of the red meat that they crave. Those critics, a growing segment of the party, disdain the regulatory reach of EU headquarters in Brussels and they disdain the reach of the euro currency that Britain is not using. Some would love for Britain to leave the EU.

Cameron tied the renegotiation and subsequent referendum to his reelection in 2015. If he wins, he says he’ll try to reshape the bloc so that more powers go back to the member countries. His speech is a blatant attempt to dramatically change the environment in which he seeks reelection. With the British economy contracting, that climate looks hostile now.

The self-orientation of Cameron’s speech makes it seem oddly disingenuous, wrapping Britain’s request for more special treatment into a pan-European vision. It comes close to blackmailing the rest of Europe by demanding: Give us what we want, by the time we want it or we are out. With this strategy, Cameron has created a cohort of 26 European prime ministers who will quietly oppose his reelection.

His approach is also fraught with risk. He can hardly control the outcome of the process that he has now set in motion. It is unlikely that the 26 European partners will want what he wants, namely the renegotiation of the European Union’s fundamental treaties.

And his timeline guarantees uncertainty for investors for years to come since the referendum will only happen in 2017, contingent upon Mr. Cameron’s reelection. The strategy is geopolitical kabuki, virtually assuring turmoil in Europe for another half decade, thereby postponing Europe’s emergence as an actor on the world stage.

On the other hand, Cameron’s plans perfectly capture the idiosyncrasies of Britain’s relationship with the continent since his approach cannot simply be dismissed as outright anti-European.

He’s pursuing a referendum, but he doesn’t want its result to be a British exit, or “Brexit.” It is entirely legitimate for a British prime minister to sketch out a vision for the future of Europe that doesn’t fully align with the continental mainstream. In fact, in his sharp critique of the EU today, Cameron speaks truth to Brussels. Many of his inconvenient insights deserve to be listened to and, frankly, acted upon.    

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