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The UK-EU Referendum
Rearranging the Deck Chairs on the Titanic

After months of rumors and conflicting reports, the draft of a compromise between British PM David Cameron and the EU’s Powers That Be has been released—and the race to an In/Out Referendum in June is on. Open Europe has a point-by-point breakdown of what Britain got from Brussels. But from the Times of London comes the (unsurprising) news that some parts of the deal may be weaker than advertised—which is sure to tick off Brits who feel they’ve been jumping to Brussels’s tune for too long. Right now, polls are even and the race is anyone’s to win.

But while this recent round of negotiations will be politically important, focusing on just the particulars of this list of concessions misses the bigger point. Gideon Rachman, writing in the Financial Times, highlights some of the grand strategic implications of the coming vote. Noting a litany of crises splitting Europe north and south (the euro) and east and west (immigration and law and order questions in Poland and Hungary), Rachman writes:

Amid all this, Mr Cameron’s demands for minor changes in Britain’s relationship with the EU seem almost bizarrely besides the point. As one German policymaker fumed to me: “The European house is burning down and Britain wants to waste time rearranging the furniture.”

Rachman is right: The British terms are bizarrely parochial, for a time of crisis and from a nation that’s supposedly one of Europe’s big players. But the quote from the German he spoke to also leaves out something big: If the Brits are rearranging the furniture while the building is on fire (and the building is on fire), the Continental Europeans have been insisting that leaving the space heater under the curtains would have worked just fine as long as the curtains had been of a different color. France, Germany, and the rest have yet to come to grips with how deep and cutting EU reform will have to be, if the Continent hopes to pull itself out of the mess. Simply stumbling from crisis to crisis while kicking the can further down the road will not magically result in a working, problem-free “United States of Europe” one day.

However, Britain, due to its unique intellectual, legal, and diplomatic inheritance, has a genuinely different perspective on many problems in Europe—one which could help Europe, if Britain can bring its weight to bear. And therein lies the rub. As Walter Russell Mead wrote last year:

[Americans] look at the EU today and see an incoherent assemblage of nations with wildly different interests and ambitions. We see that Club Med wants reform of the euro, that France fears German power and that tensions are growing between east and west and north and south.

We see potential reform coalitions everywhere we look; what we don’t see is the kind of brilliant British initiative that so often in Europe’s past brought order out of chaos and built alliances that checked those who sought to smother the continent’s diversity and subject it to a single, crushing system.[..]

The staunchly Protestant Britain of William III was able to bring the Pope himself into its grand alliance against Louis XIV; today Britain has a cause just as good and as important, but it appears to lack the wisdom to lead the reform movement that Europe urgently needs.

This needs to change—because the problems of Europe aren’t going away, and both America and the UK (whether it stays in the EU or leaves it) will continue to be invested in Europe’s health.

In his piece, Rachman offers an argument you’ll be hearing a lot of, on both sides of the Atlantic, between now and the referendum time: The UK should stay in the EU because to leave it would cripple the EU just at a time when Europe is facing threats both within (the rise of nationalist parties) and without (Russia). This is true—but only if “staying in” means pushing hard for needed reforms. It’s widely acknowledged that if the U.K. votes “Out,” it will be the beginning of a series of wrenching changes. People need to start understanding that the same applies if it votes “In”—for the UK, and for all of Europe.

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  • Nathaniel Greene

    A vitalized EU is not in America’s best interests, Professor Mead and his incompetent State Department bureaucrat allies notwithstanding. The EU does not see itself as an ally of the US but as a strategic foe. The State Department liberals just refuse to understand that.

    • Jim__L

      Rival, sure. Foe? Not in the way of USSR, certainly.

      The biggest danger I can see that the EU might cause for America is setting a horrible example for the State Department “liberals” to follow, in terms of overweening arrogance in a wanna-be totalitarian ruling class.

  • lukelea

    Instead of the EU all the OECD countries need to join together in a new Democratic League, leveraging their combined economic, industrial, commercial, military, technological, and above all financial power — including access to the international financial system itself — to enforce certain civilized norms around the world. If they workd together world’s industrial democracies still have the power to do this, but they won’t forever.

  • Jacksonian_Libertarian

    “This needs to change—because the problems of Europe aren’t going away, and both America and the UK (whether it stays in the EU or leaves it) will continue to be invested in Europe’s health.”

    While Europe’s health is important, I think retaining the EU and the Euro makes a “Cure” both impossible and a waste of time. The EU and the Euro were an attempt to create a United States of Europe, but without the most important piece of what created the United States of America, the US Constitution. What is needed now is a recognition of this huge mistake, and that the USA isn’t today, what it was back when it was created, and the Federal Government was still limited to those authorities granted it by the Constitution. The enormous bloated burden of the Federal Government today, is certainly the wrong solution for a United States of Europe, if Europe is to grow and thrive. Europe needs to start over, it should take the US Constitution, and remove the huge flaw of letting the Executive and Legislative Branches choose the Justices of the 3rd Branch. And give the choice of justices to the States and the People who the Justices are supposed to protect from the Power Hungry Politicians of the other 2 branches. Almost nothing else in the US Constitution should be changed except to incorporate the Amendments and make it specific to Europe. In any case, Europe should take what has worked before and not attempt to “Reinvent the Wheel”. The 700 page monstrosity of a Constitution Europe tried to pass before, was clearly an attempt to “Reinvent the Wheel”, and so obviously incompetent that it was soundly rejected.

  • Blackbeard

    Sadly, the West seems to be exhausted intellectually, demographically and economically. I wish it weren’t so but I don’t see much hope for Europe. Perhaps we can learn from Europe’s bad example before it is too late.

    • Andrew Allison

      Wishful thinking!

  • Gene

    I really admire the writers at TAI, but I don’t understand their staunch commitment to gradualism in ALL things. Sometimes the band-aid just needs to be torn off. Europe needs big changes and to be forced to face its failures. If that means the Brits need to administer a real shock to the system, so be it.

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