Keep Britain in the EU • Stop playing games with the energy bill
The British prime minister’s proposed referendum has limited his options
First things first: Britain needs Europe, and Europe needs Britain. U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron and European Council President Donald Tusk agree on this point, but they need to be more emphatic about it.
A referendum on the matter could happen as soon as June, and opinion in the country is closely divided. Cameron has followed a risky strategy of promising voters he’ll force reform on the European Union as a condition of Britain’s continued membership.
On Feb. 2, Tusk gave Cameron a proposed set of changes to the union’s rules. The plan, which Cameron has welcomed, will be up for debate at an EU summit on Feb. 18. It provides measures to shield non-euro EU countries from euro zone policy, would put U.K. financial regulation more firmly under U.K. control, and includes new thinking on sovereignty and migrants.
These ideas are worthwhile but far from radical. They won’t satisfy the euroskeptics in Cameron’s own party. At the same time, they’re unlikely to sail through unopposed by other EU leaders. This puts the prime minister in a tight spot: The summit may present him with a diminished version of a plan that’s just been mocked as worthless by much of the U.K. press.
Cameron set himself up for failure by promising fundamental reform on such a tight schedule. Nonetheless, Tusk’s proposals aren’t worthless. Valuable in their own right, they also offer hope that the EU is capable of further reform.
The plan is a basis for compromise. What must happen to put that into effect? Britain’s hard-line euroskeptics won’t ever be assuaged, but those who think that Britain is better off in Europe, whatever their opinion of Cameron and his party, need to rally in support of his effort to close and sell the deal. There’ll be plenty of time for Cameron-bashing later. In the same way, Europe’s other leaders need to quell any desire they may have to punish Cameron’s assertiveness by embarrassing him at the summit.
The main sticking point for both sides is migration within the EU. Other leaders have been reluctant to budge on this: Restrictions on the free movement of EU citizens clash with a core principle of the union. Yet anti-immigrant sentiment is running high in Britain, as elsewhere in the union, and shouldn’t be flatly ignored. Tusk proposes allowing temporary restrictions on migrants’ ability to claim government subsidies— less than Cameron led voters to expect, but good enough.
Giving ground there, Cameron should ask for more on the issue of sovereignty—and it would serve the interests of the other EU countries to go along. Tusk’s proposal says the union’s commitment to “ever closer union” is about promoting “trust and understanding among peoples living in open and democratic societies” and not a commitment to political integration. EU leaders should affirm and formalize this understanding.