When UK Prime Minister David Cameron set out on his tour of the Continent late last month, the European leaders who received him likely knew what he was going to tell them: that the clock was ticking on Britain’s EU membership, and that the choice the British people will make a couple of years from now depends on them. Indeed UK Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond had warned earlier that the vote, to be held by the end of 2017, might go against EU membership if the negotiations over EU reform don’t “deliver on those big areas of concern that the British people have we will not win the referendum.”
Cameron’s reform proposals themselves are not completely unreasonable. They include an opt-out for the UK from plans to build an “ever-closer union” and a four-year ban on migrants’ right to claim benefits in other EU countries. The EU could certainly benefit from much deeper reforms, loosening the screws of EU-wide policy coordination in some areas—technology policy for example—and tightening them in others, such as security or energy policy.
Yet, the threat of a Brexit implicit in the referendum—approved recently by an overwhelming majority in the House of Commons—is unlikely to serve the UK well, much less Europe. Even if the Europeans acquiesce to Cameron’s demands, there will still be a substantial risk of a “no” vote as a result of factors that have little to do with the functioning of the EU’s institutions: the state of the global economy, immigration, or domestic problems that UKIP and Tory backbenchers would like to blame on Brussels.
While the EU needs reform, its existence, even in its current form, is preferable to any of the plausible alternatives. The EU has the potential to deliver some Europe-wide public goods—common foreign, security, and energy policies, for example. More importantly, however, the EU serves as a “commitment device” for politicians to stick with policies that are beneficial but may be politically inconvenient.
The common market may be the most significant example of a broadly beneficial yet politically delicate policy. To be sure, in principle free trade among European countries does not require the existence of a pan-European government. In real life, however, politicians are under constant temptation to cater to special interest groups by imposing barriers to trade, investment, or the free movement of people. However flawed it may be, the existence of the EU—and of its rules guiding the common market—helps limit such opportunistic behavior.
For a long time, bashing the EU has been a crowd-pleaser in conservative (and libertarian) circles in Washington. UKIP’s leader Nigel Farage was welcomed to CPAC earlier this year, whereas his former colleague, the Tory MEP David Campbell Bannerman presented his book, Time to Jump, at the Heritage Foundation last year. Vaclav Klaus, the former President of the Czech Republic and a hero of many American conservatives, has long used the DC think-tank circuit to draw parallels between the EU and the Soviet era.
But the free-market rhetoric obscures the fact that Euroskepticism on the European continent tends to be driven by nationalist impulses and a distrust of the modern globalized world. Its adherents often harbor admiration for Vladimir Putin’s Russia. For them, free-market rhetoric is an afterthought.
A Brexit would almost certainly strengthen these voices. Because of London’s role as a global financial hub and the Tories’ pro-market outlook, a reasonably well-managed “jump” would probably not lead an immediate economic catastrophe for the UK. It would, therefore, provide a precedent for further unravelling of the EU on the continent.
Yet such disintegration would hardly advance the cause of free markets—or liberty at large. Marine Le Pen, for instance, has never attempted to hide her ties with the Kremlin, including financial ones. She is also an advocate of industrial policy and protectionism in France. Austria’s Freedom Party and Hungary’s Viktor Orban are among Putin’s most reliable allies in Europe. Vaclav Klaus has repeatedly blamed the conflict in Eastern Ukraine on the United States and the EU, has vigorously defended Putin’s “innocence,” and has deplored the cosmopolitanism of the modern era, “without roots and responsibility.” In turn, the Polish Euroskeptic MEP and former presidential candidate Janusz Korwin-Mikke calls democracy the “stupidest form of government ever conceived” and claims that the CIA organized the sniper shootings on Kyiv’s Maidan to hasten President Yanukovych’ departure.
Even many members of Alternative for Germany, a characteristically demure Euroskeptic group led by German conservative academics (who have tried to distance themselves from more radical right-wing groups such as the anti-Muslim PEGIDA movement) defend closer ties with Russia and oppose the sanctions imposed on the Putin regime following its aggression in Ukraine.
Though the EU needs reform, it is important to keep in mind the bigger picture. A cohesive, well-functioning EU that includes the UK is in America’s strategic interest—and indeed in the interest of free societies around the world. The emergence of a fragmented Europe run by petty nationalists friendly to the Kremlin would be a disaster for the future of free societies across the continent. That is something that Mr. Cameron should think twice before presenting his European partners with ultimatums of any kind—and so should American conservatives before providing the next European Euroskeptic with a soap box in Washington.