David Cameron could avoid a Brexit disaster—but he probably won’t

Decisions, decisions.
Decisions, decisions.
Image: Reuters/Andrew Winning
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US president Barack Obama has touched down in London. He is presumably going to use his visit to tell prime minister David Cameron why it is in the best interests of both the US and the West for the UK to stay in the European Union.

The problem is that the EU has fallen out of favor many of its most ardent supporters: Martin Schulz, president of the European Parliament, recently described the EU as a “Frankenstein,” sucking democracy out of the member states.

What Schulz wants is a fully-fledged United States of Europe. He wants the dividing of power between executive, legislature, and judiciary branches. He wants one sovereign federation, with a large internal market, a single currency, a charter of fundamental rights, and a single defense policy.

Obama is unlikely to make this particular case to Cameron. The debate is far too contentious at the moment, across the EU. Voters remain overwhelmingly loyal to their own constitutional states; they do not want “more Europe.”

They may get it, nonetheless. Brussels has a habit of asking countries to vote until they give the right answer, sacking governments who disagree with it, all the while lecturing member states about democracy and human rights. The latest example is the Dutch vote against the EU-Ukrainian association agreement, which will go ahead regardless.

The “special relationship”

Obama is much too canny to wade in too deep. He knows very well that the EU is far from popular in Europe and has ambitions far beyond its reach. Obama is much more likely to make his case using historical precedents. After two US military interventions in Europe’s wars, the US has a vital interest in the European project, just as it does in Japan’s future, and the prosperity of Southeast Asia. A rising China and an unpredictable Russia are challenging enough. Few will benefit if the UK is allowed to create further disunion in Europe.

The official UK position on the EU is in more agreement with Schulz. In the 1972 Act of Accession, the conservative government of the time signed up to a supranational vision of Europe’s future. A European union would be the second pillar of a strengthened Atlantic alliance. This is still Whitehall’s position.

Echoes of 1776

There is a problem, though. Whitehall has never managed to sell its European vision to a skeptical public. The centuries-old UK tradition is to vote the rascals in who make the laws, and kick them out if they do not match expectations. They frequently do not.

This popular frustration has lead to the high rate of political turnover. Political parties run the country for a while, but soon enough the electorate sends them packing. The problem with this system, at least from a civilian perspective, is that Brussels is the source of growing volumes of laws, which the UK electorate cannot sanction. The EU is an unelected dictatorship.

Not surprisingly, the British Social Attitudes Survey of 2014 records that only 15% of the UK public backs the Whitehall/Schulz view. In the survey, 25% of respondents want to leave, 15% want EU powers to stay the same, and 38% want the EU’s powers to be reduced. At best, it seems Brits are ready to accept a minimalist EU. And they certainly don’t want to be part of anything they don’t have control over.

Obama’s dilemma

Presumably, president Obama has already recognized this problem. After all, concerns over representation inspired the American colonists in 1776. This puts Obama in a tight spot. He must continue to advocate for what has been a central plank of US foreign policy since the days of Harry Truman. For all the talk of the US “pivot” towards Asia, Europe remains vital to the US world position.

On the other hand, if Obama openly endorses the Schulz/Whitehall vision of a supranational Europe, he is in effect telling the UK electorate that their concerns about representation don’t really matter and they may have to live with a neutered parliament. This is an impossible demand to make of a country. No friendly ally could ever possibly propose that a country abandon its sovereignty for the benefit of the alliance.

I doubt very much that the US president would advocate such a thing. What he can say, however, is that the EU must be founded on the constitutional states of Europe in order to be sustainable.

The best-case scenario

This compromise may have a chance if two things happen. The first is the death of Schulz’ dreams of a European great power, centered in Berlin and Brussels. The other is that Cameron must find a way to rewrite the 1972 Accession Act. References to the EU as a supranational body should be substituted for a reassertion of UK sovereignty.

The UK could then stay in the EU, but with clear discretionary powers to analyze, amend, and reject any proposal emanating from the EU institutions. We’re not talking about automatic rejection, of course. There would simply need to be a mechanism allowing the UK to reserve the right to make its own laws—while listening to good ideas, wherever they may come from.

If this all sounds a little too good to be true, that’s probably because right now, it is. Schulz won’t bury his dream, and Cameron won’t have the 1972 Act revised. Apparently, the prime minister does not want to win a massive majority in the referendum.

If the prime minister were to change his mind, he would pave the way for the a landslide victory while cementing the UK’s status as a champion of a Europe of cooperating states—and a key player in the US global alliance system. Ultimately, the June 23 referendum is Cameron’s to lose.