By Elizabeth Pond
Please, Britain, stay Great! Don't shrink again to little England.
Split up into England, Scotland, (and Wales?), if that's your domestic preference. But please don't storm out of the transatlantic community of the European Union and the United States.
Because of your skilled diplomacy, you've punched above your weight ever since you lost an empire. We owe you thanks for that. You lent admirable pragmatism and a whiff of strategic sensibility to the EU.
You endured Charles de Gaulle’s blackmail when he set the price for British membership in the European Community as London's co-payment of high protectionist EC subsidies for inefficient French farms. (And you got your own back a decade later, when Margaret Thatcher swung her purse and extracted a rebate from the EU budget.) You waited out de Gaulle's initial attempt to mobilize the Germans—with the Germans as the powerful horse, the French as the guiding rider, of course—against the Americans and the Anglo-Saxons in general. You further waited out Francois Mitterrand's convergence toward German competitiveness through reform of the dirigiste economy in 1983, and subsequent French backsliding. You pressed brilliantly for EU enlargement and for a real single European market as the Berlin Wall fell and the cold war ended. You got your opt-outs from the EU's common visa-free zone, the euro, and the working time directive on the EU's way to an "ever closer union."
But now that you, David Cameron, have indulged Tory Euroskeptics and United Kingdom Independence Party outflankers with the promise of a new in-out referendum after renegotiating rollback of past EU deals, Britain is no longer just the most reluctant EU member. Mr. Prime Minister, you risk setting off an English tsunami to opt out of the EU altogether (and in its wake, perhaps, a Scottish Europhile tsunami to opt out of the UK). You risk undermining the integration that gave Europe its longest peace in history and leveraged your population of 63 million into a negotiating bloc of half a billion.
You swear that you believe very deeply "that Britain’s national interest is best served in a flexible, adaptable, and open European Union and that such a European Union is best with Britain in it." But are you really going to fight for this belief in the hostile arena of British politics? Or are you demanding a renegotiation of British-EU relations only to prove that the European Union won't reopen past deals and therefore is not "flexible, adaptable, and open" in the British sense?
Yes, I know, you're floating the referendum in the name of the "real democratic legitimacy and accountability" that Westminster famously pioneered. But direct democracy is not the only kind that exists. Even in centralized Britain, there is representative democracy. That's precisely the kind of democracy EU members are exercising as their elected governments "pool" portions of their 21st-century residues of sovereignty to build more effective collective clout in an interdependent globalized world. Moreover, in the biggest member-state, Germany, the Constitutional Court already demands so much prior democratic approval by parliament for any future transfer of competence to Brussels that Berlin would be paralyzed, were it not for Chancellor Angela Merkel's overriding popularity.
Certainly your own businessmen have warned of the chilling effect your call for a referendum five years hence—and the interim uncertainty—will have on financiers who might otherwise invest in Britain to gain access to the huge EU market. Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Philip Gordon of your special relation America has warned you that exit from the EU would induce Washington to take you less seriously. Angela Merkel has warned against opening a Pandora's Box that could have all 27 members retracting previous package concessions and demutualizing and reatomizing Europe.
Likewise, Oxonian, honorary neo-con American, and now Polish Foreign Minister Radoslav Sikorski has urged you not to forfeit your insider voice and join Switzerland and Norway in having to comply commercially with EU rules and regulations with no ability to influence their formulation—taxation without representation, as it were. Wolfgang Ischinger, former German Ambassador to the Court of St. James's and maestro of the blue-ribbon Munich Security Conference, further joins Sikorski in inviting you to lead in forging Europe's so-far non-existent defense policy.
Why don't you take that lead—and make a strong case with your constituents for doing so?
Your Tory predecessors blazed the way. Ted Heath deemed it essential for Britain to be at the core of this messy new European confederation-plus, the one new system of political governance to be devised in the past four centuries. Maggie Thatcher, however much she denounced a putative European "superstate," did not take Britain over the brink of secession. Instead, she took her battle for acceptable terms to every one of those all-night sessions of European brawling and consensus that climaxed in bleary-eyed 6 a.m. press conferences.
True, if Britain does turn its back on the EU, war won't break out again. The political culture has moved on from the days of Wellington and Napoleon. But Britain and Europe would both lose out as an exasperated Washington pivots toward a far more dynamic Asia.
If you do believe that Britain's national interest is best served in a European Union with Britain in it, then please fight now for this greater good.
If you do resist the stop-the-world-I-want-to-get-off momentum and hang onto EU engagement, Britain might just stay Great.
Elizabeth Pond is a Berlin-based American journalist and the author of Beyond the Wall and The Rebirth of Europe (Brookings).
[Photo courtesy of the UK Department of International Development.]