Wait, the Sun Hasn't Set Yet! British Conservatives' Great-Power Delusion

How David Cameron's stance on Europe revealed the obsession of his base


Stefan 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.

And, just as the single market will mean more to the United Kingdom in the future, so too should European cooperation on crime, terrorism, immigration, and above all defence and foreign policy. As a sovereign entity, the United Kingdom maintains its place at top tables via its permanent membership on the United Nations' Security Council. But diplomatically the U.K. now serves more as a way into the European Union for other governments including the United States, which reiterated its belief this week that the United Kingdom is "stronger as a result of its E.U. membership and as a result of having the U.K. in, the E.U. is stronger."

Indeed, as the European External Action Service -- the E.U.'s effective State Department -- better establishes itself, as national governments continue to make cuts at home, and as the continent's emerging economies seek to assert themselves in the diplomatic arena, Europe as a single political institution must be a cornerstone of the new international order. The E.U. will become more relevant not only in terms of aid coordination, but also through intervention in the Middle East, North Africa, and East Asia. The E.U. is already part of the Quartet involved in mediating peace between Israel and the Palestinians, and has mulled putting forward its own plan in March after Israel's new government has formed.

David Cameron understands the changing global dynamic. In fact, he said as much in his speech. "Continued access to the single market is vital for British businesses and British jobs," he said. On foreign policy, he argued, "we have more power and influence -- whether implementing sanctions against Iran or Syria, or promoting democracy in Burma -- if we can act together." He added, on this theme, that "there is no doubt that we are more powerful in Washington, in Beijing, in Delhi because we are a powerful player in the European Union."

And yet there he was, appealing to his right-wing Englander base by offering a referendum of E.U. membership while making demands of the other European nations he must know they will never all agree to. To implement a "flexible, adaptable and open European Union" and return powers to national governments would involve rolling back decades of progress toward an ever-closer economic and political union at peace with itself. It would mean, in other words, the great unravelling of the entire European project.

Cameron's speech indicated his understanding that the future of the United Kingdom is inexorably bound to the future of the European Union. What he fails to grasp is that bringing about the undoing of the one will hasten the decline of the other.