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Cameron’s Threats May Keep UK in EU

David Cameron finally delivered his long-anticipated speech on the EU, promising that he would put the UK’s membership up to a referendum, provided he wins the next election. The promise of a referendum delighted the euroskeptics in his coalition, though Cameron himself vowed to fight for staying in the EU so long as the upcoming negotiations with European leaders work out to his liking:

“I know there will be those who say the vision I have outlined will be impossible to achieve. That there is no way our partners will cooperate. That the British people have set themselves on a path to inevitable exit. And that if we aren’t comfortable being in the E.U. after 40 years, we never will be. But I refuse to take such a defeatist attitude — either for Britain or for Europe.”

“And when the referendum comes,” he said, “I will campaign for it with all my heart and soul.”

Cameron is playing a game of hardball with European leaders. During Prime Minister’s Questions, the BBC is reporting, Ed Miliband accused Cameron of “running scared” from the resurgent UK Independence Party. This is undoubtedly true on some level, but Cameron wisely intends to use this to his advantage, implicitly threatening that, if negotiations with the EU break down, European leaders will have to deal with a far more unreasonable bunch of characters after the next election.

Will his gambit work? It’s hard to say, as there are many countervailing forces in play. It would be a big blow to the spirit of the European project if the UK abandoned ship, and northern countries such as Germany and the Netherlands are none too keen on seeing it come to pass. But, as we noted yesterday, the French seem to think that Charles de Gaulle did the right thing when he vetoed Britain’s first application for membership in the EU, and Paris looks increasingly eager to show Britain the door.

The underlying reality here is that the euro crisis has fundamentally changed the nature of the European Union in ways that nobody really yet understands — partly because the crisis has not yet been resolved. There is not nearly enough public support in Britain for any government to seriously entertain the prospect of joining the euro-zone and committing to the much tighter organization that both the Germans and the French in their different ways want that zone to become. Britain must either carve out a new kind of relationship within the EU but outside the euro or it must choose between leaving the EU and embracing the euro and everything that entails.

It’s not an easy choice for Britain or for its partners, but Cameron has honestly recognized the reality that exists and is doing his best to find an approach that allows an appropriate form of British participation in the European process. This may not work, but he is right to try, and the United States should make clear to our friends and partners in Europe, especially in Paris, that we would like very much for them to lend him a friendly hand.

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