BRITISH PRIME Minister David Cameron declared Saturday that “we are approaching one of the biggest decisions this country will face in our lifetimes,” in a June referendum on whether to remain in the European Union. He’s right, unfortunately: A British vote against the E.U. would be a “step into the dark” that most likely would greatly harm Britain’s economy, its global influence and its ability to be a strategic partner of the United States. It could deal a crippling blow to the already staggering 28-nation union and lead to Britain’s own dissolution.
Most disturbingly, these enormous risks were unnecessary. In promising three years ago to renegotiate Britain’s E.U. membership and then put it to a vote, Mr. Cameron embraced a shortsighted and politically motivated maneuver that now will force him to wage the fight of his life to avoid a disaster and the likely end of his political career. In the four months before the vote, his government is likely to be a weak and distracted international player at a time of multiple crises, in and outside of Europe.
Mr. Cameron claims that his negotiation of new terms for Britain’s E.U. membership has made it possible for the country to enjoy the “best of both worlds” within and outside the union. But even the strongest supporters of a “yes” vote in the June 23 referendum say the deal offers only modest changes in the status quo. British governments will now be able to limit some welfare payments to workers who migrate to the country from elsewhere in the E.U. and will be able to challenge new financial rules that could negatively affect Britain’s economy. London will be exempted from a largely symbolic E.U. pledge to seek “ever-closer union.”
Some of those who favor a “Brexit” say it would restore British sovereignty and democratic accountability for governmental decisions. That “no” camp includes a half-dozen members of Mr. Cameron’s cabinet and London Mayor Boris Johnson, one of the country’s most popular politicians. Their argument is more nostalgic than practical. To sustain its global financial center and export economy in this century, Britain will have to be bound by many regulations and norms set elsewhere, just like every other advanced country. If it leaves the E.U., it will merely lose influence in shaping some of those rules.
In all likelihood, the referendum will turn on far cruder questions, such as whether resentment of immigrants, the asylum-seekers flooding into Europe and the political establishment will drive voters to cast a negative vote. As in the United States, populists who feed on the frustrations of the traditional working class are on the rise in Britain; for them, the E.U. is an ideal scapegoat.
The best-case scenario is that Mr. Cameron will, with great effort, manage to preserve the status quo. He can plausibly paint a grim picture of the alternative: an economy that spins into recession, the possible secession from the United Kingdom of pro-E.U. Scotland, and a weakening of Britain’s ability to partner with Europe against such threats as terrorism and Russia. The country’s U.S. friends can only hope that at a time of anti-institutional feeling, voters will be swayed by that conventional common sense.