Keep Bri­tain in the EU • Stop play­ing games with the en­ergy bill

The Bri­tish prime min­is­ter’s pro­posed ref­er­en­dum has lim­ited his op­tions

Bloomberg Businessweek (Asia) - - CONTENTS -

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.

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