British Prime Minister David Cameron may have set himself up for failure by tying his support for continued membership of the European Union to reform, warns Wikistrat Senior Analyst Shaun Riordan. Other countries wonder whether it is worth sacrificing integration to keep the United Kingdom involved when it is unwilling to play its part anyway.
Riordan, who spent 16 years in the British diplomatic service and is now a Senior Visiting Fellow at the Netherlands Institute for International Relations (Clingendael), argues that Cameron – who won reelection this month – aims to repeat the trick Harold Wilson pulled off in the 1970s: “call a referendum on U.K. membership of the EU, secure minimal reforms that justify campaigning to remain in the EU and then win the referendum.”
It worked well for Wilson, who was able to patch over divisions in his party on Europe while remaining a member of the then-Common Market. Cameron will find it much harder to pull off. The anti-European wing of his party is far more virulent than anything Wilson had to face and is backed by an openly anti-European party (UKIP) which came third in the recent elections in the popular vote. Cameron will not be able to get away with the cosmetic reforms Wilson did. He needs real reforms on immigration and return of powers to Westminster.
But other leaders may not want to play ball, Riordan warns. Most see the possibility of a British exit from the EU as an unwelcome distraction from the “real” problems of Greece and Ukraine, to which Britain has contributed very little.
Cameron’s task will not be helped by his first-term diplomacy, during which he managed to alienate even potential allies on the EU reform agenda to leave the U.K. isolated. Too many European powers now act as if the U.K. has already left.
This may be Cameron’s last political act. Cameron has said he will not stand for election as prime minister again. Once the referendum is over, the contest for his succession as Conservative Party leader will begin. Cameron does not want a “Little England” to be his legacy. This might just tempt him to campaign to stay in the EU even without significant reform. Part of his own party could rebel, but the latest polls suggest that the British people would listen.