Cameron announced UK referendum “about Europe”
These are the special moments when politicians say something in public which they will regret some day for sure. This time British prime minister David Cameron put a referendum about “Europe” on the agenda.
True, he did not say when the referendum will be held and he said it will not be an “in/out” referendum meaning it won’t be just the decision about sating in our leaving the European Union. But he opened that discussion and gave it a higher political legitimisation.
UK the awkward partner
The voices for quitting EU membership have never been extinct since the UK joined back in 1973. But it was never an outspoken official policy by any British government. The fought hard for British interests in Brussels gaining the reputation of being an “awkward partner” or even being anti-European. But leaving was never really an option. Cameron agreed on this pointing out that the single market is good for Britain.
British tradition still obstacle against being “good Europeans”
Every kid in the UK knows “1066” – the last time the British island was conquered successfully from the continent. Every successor after William the Conquerer failed invading the UK. Thus the British people have a long cultural history without mixing up with cultural experiences from continental Europe. I think this is one of the main reason why the UK is so reluctant to pass over British sovereignty to a European Union of whatever shape.
The problem is that the nation state is out of fashion. And especially the 21st century will show that one European country no matter what size cannot prevail over the challenges of globalization: migration, poverty, digital and financial world market, environmental problems, non-proliferation, failing states, terrorism and so on and so forth.
Britain living still in old times
Many books about the relationship between the UK and Europe state that the British governments did not join in the very early days of the EU e. g. the Schuman Plan and the Treaties of Rome because they still lived in the 19th century British empire which already crumbled or was at that time due to decline. After realising that the British would do better in than outside the Union they just joined in the 70s.
I don’t think that the overall majority of the British people already shifted as described. You can’t blame them for this – remember the almost over 1000 years of tradition developed on that special island. Giving it up in just 60 years is pretty hard. Therefore British people are no reluctant or even anti-European – they have to learn that the nation state is not the future and that the British people will find prosperity and peace only in a (political) united Europe. This will take time, maybe time the UK does not have. Therefore it is not good that the UK still has its seat at the UN Security Council, being just one of two nuclear countries in Europe and still believe in the “special relationship” towards the USA. This still gives the UK the feeling of being special and maybe superior to other European countries.
Totally wrong signal by Cameron
Having said all this I can only say that the referendum cameron is talking about is the totally wrong political signal. Even with putting limits to the question of the referendum who knows what the referendum will look like when the time has come? Will Cameron then be still PM? As a leading political figure (even as a conservative politician) he must recognize that the only way for every European country including Britain is to stay very close together to have at least a voice in the concert of the coming decades in world politics.
The PM should have worked in the other direction: explaining Europe and convincing for the European project. If one day this referendum will be held and the UK will skip the EU or parts of the political framework the political elite will discover how big this failure will be. One can only hope that some day very soon leading political figures in Britain will go another way which is heading towards the EU and not away from it. It is the only longterm perspective the UK has.