British Prime Minister David Cameron will soon be laying out plans for a referendum of the extent of the UK’s presence in the EU. Obviously President Obama won’t have an official ballot in that referendum, but his administration has already let it be known that America isn’t happy about the possibility of a British withdrawal. According to FT, the U.S. yesterday publicly informed British journalists that it would prefer the country to exercise a strong presence in an “outward-looking EU.”
Obviously this is a choice the British must make for themselves, but a Britain outside the EU would inevitably have less influence in Europe and in the wider world than it does now. For America, which depends on Britain as an important ally, the ideal outcome is for it to become more influential within the EU. As it looks to us on this side of the Atlantic, at least, all the talk about leaving is less productive than developing an effective long-term strategy to promote British interests in the EU.
Perhaps the British should consider negotiating the kind of relationship the Germans have built with France with one or more of the other European countries—working out common positions on issues before they move to the EU level and then agreeing to vote in concert. This would not be an unfamiliar role. Britain played the European diplomatic game pretty well from the time of the Tudors until the modern era. Furthermore, the expansion of the EU and the tensions in the eurozone actually give the UK some political openings. It even looks as if, on a number of issues, Germany would favor a well-constructed, carefully thought-out British plan.
Cameron is clear on the fact that he doesn’t want his country to completely withdraw from the EU; he only wants make the relationship looser and to re-assert national sovereignty over some policies the EU currently controls. Even so, his government seems more focused on limiting its entanglement with the EU than on exploiting that entanglement effectively to promote British interests. We hope they have the foresight to change that.