David Cameron is betting the UK’s membership in the EU on a free trade deal with the US

Cameron wants a friend with him at the negotiating (and ping pong) table.
Cameron wants a friend with him at the negotiating (and ping pong) table.
Image: AP Photo/Paul Hackett
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UK prime minister David Cameron really thinks a free trade deal between the European Union and the United States is a good idea, judging by his article (paywall) this morning on his agenda for a summit of the world’s eight largest economies next month:

Trade makes the cake bigger so everyone can benefit. Take the free trade area between Europe and the U.S. on which we hope to launch negotiations when President Obama is in Northern Ireland for the G-8 next month. This deal could add as much as £10 billion to the British economy and £63 billion ($97 billion) to U.S. GDP. But the rest of the world would benefit too, with gains that could generate €100 billion ($132 billion) world-wide.

However, Cameron also thinks that UK voters should vote on whether or not to leave the European Union in 2017 (assuming he wins an election in 2015). Cameron’s Conservative party has long been skeptical of the European common market and the rules drafted by the European Parliament in Brussels. The multi-year currency car crash that is the euro crisis has not exactly engendered optimism about the project. Today, a plurality of UK citizens would vote to leave Europe’s common market.

So why is Cameron so bullish on a free-trade deal that his country might not even join? Asked that very question this morning at a press conference in Washington, D.C., he had this to say:

There’s not going to be a referendum tomorrow…it would be a false choice between the status quo and leaving. And I don’t think that is the choice the British public want or the British public deserve. Is it in the national interest of Britain to have a transatlantic trade deal that will make our countries more prosperous; that will get people to work; that will help our businesses?  Yes, it is. … Is it in our interests to reform the European Union to make it more open, more competitive, more flexible, and to improve Britain’s place within the European Union?  Yes, it is. … And then finally, is it in Britain’s national interest, once we have achieved those changes but before the end of 2017, to consult the British public in a proper, full-on, in/out referendum?  Yes, I believe it is.

Basically, Cameron is saying that if he can get access to free trade with the United States via the EU, he can sell this to his party of euroskeptics—who love Britain’s “special relationship” with the US—as a reason for staying in the EU. Otherwise, he’ll want to go the Swiss route of establishing trade with, rather than membership in, the European Union. The hardball negotiating tactics won’t make Cameron’s European counterparts very happy, but that’s how the talks are shaping up.