Why the all the fuss about the European Union?
As British Prime Minister David Cameron met with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Wednesday to discuss proposed changes to the EU, Britons' dissatisfaction with their country's membership in the union remains high.
Reuters reports that 54 percent of decided voters are in favor of Britain's exit from the EU, popularly referred to as "Brexit," according to a survey conducted by the polling firm ORB International. When undecided voters are included, 43 percent remain in favor of withdrawing from the EU. In November, support for withdrawal topped fifty percent.
As domestic support for the United Kingdom's membership in the EU continues to drop, Mr. Cameron is making the rounds in Europe with a plan that he hopes will allow the UK to remain in the EU while satisfying British concerns.
Cameron identified some of those concerns in a 2013 speech at the London headquarters of Bloomberg. According to Cameron, Britain feels burdened, rather than blessed, by its membership in the EU.
"People are increasingly frustrated," Cameron said in his speech then, "that decisions taken further and further away from them mean their living standards are slashed through enforced austerity or their taxes are used to bail out governments on the other side of the continent."
In November 2015, Cameron sent a letter to the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, summarizing Britain's objections to the EU's current structure. Chief among these objections was Britain's lack of commitment to one of the pillars of EU membership, working towards an “ever closer union," a phrase that appears frequently in the treaties that established the EU and its predecessors.
This lack of unity is salient in the differing approaches that the UK and Germany take in addressing Europe's refugee crisis. Merkel's government has come out strongly in favor of welcoming refugees, a move that the UK supports in principle. But the UK rejects extending to refugees and foreign workers the same welfare benefits that its own citizens receive.
Merkel has expressed a willingness to enter into negotiations with the UK while maintaining her support for the principles of free movement and equality.
Despite objecting to Cameron's proposed benefits ban for new immigrant workers due to discrimination concerns, Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban also remains hopeful that the two countries could come to an agreement
"The discussions are going well," said Cameron, according to Bloomberg. "They are hard, they are tough, there are difficult issues. But I'm confident, with goodwill – and there is goodwill – I think on all sides we can bring these negotiations to a conclusion and then hold the referendum."
There are existing alternatives to the EU. The European Free Trade Association is a parallel market to the European Union, and has four members: Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway, and Switzerland. The first three countries participate in the EU's market through the European Economic Area. Switzerland has separate agreements the European Union.
While freedom from some of the EU's regulations might be beneficial for the UK, the "Norway plan" has its own drawbacks. Non-EU members who wish to take part in the economic community, for example, are subject to the same rules as EU members (through agreements like the EEA), but have no say in their creation. Whatever the UK's post-Brexit economic plans, the Economist argues, the country would be deeply unsatisfied with the result.
Hence Cameron's attempts to negotiate a European Union reform plan that would satisfy UK demands for sovereignty and allow Britain to reap the benefits of EU's economic community. He hopes to put the question to voters in a long-awaited referendum by the end of 2017.