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.

Matt Dunham/AP
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.'

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.

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.    

No one can doubt his claim that large parts of Europe suffer from a crisis of competitiveness. No one can overlook the growing unease of European populations about the condition and workability of their greatly expanded union and its democratic foundations. It is hard to contend with his assertion that Brussels sometimes looks like a bureaucratic behemoth. And it is not outlandish for him to stipulate the principle that powers cannot only flow from member-states to EU institutions, but also the other way.

Perhaps the single biggest contribution to the European debate is Cameron’s deconstruction of the EU’s founding myth. No longer is Europe’s direction “ever closer union.” At least not for all European nations. And certainly not for Britain.

The history of European integration is littered with federalist visions. And along the way, lots of cheerleading has come from the United States. For the past three years, American commentators like the economist Paul Krugman have recommended “full integration, American-style – a United States of Europe” as a way to resolve the euro crisis that has engulfed the 17 members who share that currency.

Not least thanks to Cameron it is now clear that a federalist push to solve the euro crisis will only result in uncontrollable fragmentation of Europe – with Britain leading the way among those countries that resist ever tighter coordination.

Rather, a multi-tiered construct seems to be emerging. Cameron acknowledges that the eurozone, in order to fix its problems, will have to integrate further. That may include a few more central institutions. But around this nucleus of nations using a common currency, a ring of countries with different levels of integration is developing – including such nations as Poland, Sweden and, yes, Britain.

What binds these countries to the core is access to the single market. Some countries may join the eurozone later, some may never do so. For these nations, it is reasonable to demand equal rights inside the single market. Cameron, speaking for Britain, has done just that. If the EU can build and maintain such a flexible and adaptable system of membership and governance, it will prosper.

Whatever the shortcomings and presumptuous segments 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. If the proposed reforms intend to benefit all member states, Cameron could find considerable support on the continent. Such reforms may not even require a grandiose renegotiation of the European treaties.

But Cameron and his fellow conservatives should not delude themselves: More British exceptionalism will hardly be tolerated; cherry picking of rules is not in the offing. The European Union surely wants Great Britain to remain a member, but not at any price.

Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff is a senior transatlantic fellow at The German Marshall Fund of the United States where he leads the EuroFuture Project.

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