UK’s EU problem becomes more pressing

March 1, 2013

By Pierre Briançon

The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

It has taken just a short week to expose British Prime Minister David Cameron’s stated European policy as lacking in both strategy and tactics.

The government’s defeat on the bonus cap the European Union has decided to force on bankers has shown how isolated London has become in the bloc’s decision-making process. The defeat of Cameron’s ruling Conservatives in a by-election, when they were pushed into third place by the anti-European UK Independence Party, has shown how divided the political right remains on Europe. And Herman Van Rompuy has thrown cold water on British hopes that the EU’s treaties could be renegotiated. It’s not the priority, the European Council president said, appearing to point to the door in noting that “there is an exit clause” if the UK considers its relationship with the EU unsatisfactory.

Britain finds itself without allies in Europe, and must now clearly explain what it feels is unbearable about the current situation, and why it can justify the radical option of an exit. Cameron’s plan had been to enter into renegotiation talks, and then submit the results to a referendum in 2017 – if, that is, the Conservatives are still in power. But if the treaties aren’t renegotiated, what will his position be? The only choice that would be left to voters is one of a brutal in-or-out of the EU. And in that case, what would Cameron advocate? Continued membership that would make him lose face? Or would he shoulder the responsibility of the consequences of a radical exit?

The Eastleigh by-election results will be scrutinised in European capitals for possible clues as to what Cameron could do next. His rather half-hearted anti-European statements haven’t helped him contain UKIP. So will he change course or up the rhetoric? In the latter case, events could accelerate, leaving the prime minister in a situation he may not like but can’t avoid – leading to an earlier than anticipated “brexit”. If, on the other hand, Cameron opts for a less strident stance, he will be in the position of a leader trying to explain to his people why they are wrong – and why he himself has been so careless.

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