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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