How David Cameron's stance on Europe revealed the obsession of his baseStefan Wermuth/Reuters
The writing was on the wall when David Cameron opened his pitch for European Union reform by generously describing the United Kingdom as an "argumentative and rather strong-minded member of the family of European nations." "We have the character of an island nation -- independent, forthright, passionate in defence of our sovereignty," the Prime Minister continued. "We can no more change this British sensibility than we can drain the English Channel."
After essentially calling his country an awkward boor forever separated from the continent, there was only one direction his speech could go. Cameron demanded a full and complete E.U. treaty renegotiation, one which would create a "more flexible, more adaptable, more open" Europe, "fit for the challenges of the modern age." British membership in the E.U. would then be put to the people in a referendum in 2017. If the outcome of these pan-European talks were favorable to the United Kingdom, Cameron would campaign for staying in. If not, he would have no choice but to "think very carefully" but whether to vote in favor of withdrawal.
Cameron's threat to European solidarity and brotherhood could not have been more ill-timed, the speech coming one day after the 50th anniversary of the signing of the historic Élysée Treaty between France and Germany. The rude interruption to celebrations of European unity was a product of the pressure the prime minister has been put under by forces outside of his control: rebellious Euroskeptic backbenchers in his own party on the one hand; and the rise of the downright Europhobic (and, one might add, xenophobic) United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) on the other, which threatens to pick away at his party's base of support during the upcoming elections.
His speech was designed above all as an appeal to these constituencies. Cameron rubbished the idea of Europe being anything other than a collective of nations: "There is not, in my view, a single European demos," he stated. "It is national parliaments, which are, and will remain, the true source of real democratic legitimacy and accountability in the E.U." Cameron also deployed nationalist rhetoric, saying Britain could "make her own way in the world, outside the E.U., if we chose to do so." He continued:
For an E.U. without Britain, without one of Europe's strongest powers, a country which in many ways invented the single market, and which brings real heft to Europe's influence on the world stage which plays by the rules and which is a force for liberal economic reform would be a very different kind of European Union. And it is hard to argue that the E.U. would not be greatly diminished by Britain's departure.
Such arrogance and triumphalism only serves to highlight the delusion that lays at the heart of anti-European conservatism in the United Kingdom. It tries to assert, in a manner of speaking, that the last 65 years of British decline in the aftermath of World War II never happened, and that even though the United Kingdom is not even the largest economy in Europe, let alone the world, it is still an essential and indispensable power in and of itself. To put it more crudely: the United Kingdom doesn't need the European Union, these conservatives say; instead, it needs us.
Unfortunately for the Euroskeptics, calls for the United Kingdom to re-assert its economic independence ignore both Britain's diminishing strength and the evolving nature of the global economy. In 2011, Brazil overtook the U.K. to become the sixth-largest economy in the world. The IMF projects India will have shot past the United Kingdom too by 2017, while Russia will be well on the way to accomplishing the same feat a few years after that. China will still be growing at 8 percent per year, Indonesia at close to 7 percent, South Korea and South Africa at 4 percent, with the United Kingdom pootling along at 2 percent. It is not that by virtue of its location and language the U.K. cannot be a useful trading floor between east and west, but that as economic power moves away from the West, the United Kingdom will become increasingly irrelevant -- unless it is a full and participatory member of the world's largest trading bloc and common market.