Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

A ‘Brexit’ Memoir: What Cameron Wanted in 2013, What He Got Now

  • PM's vision of change culminates in Brussels leaders' summit
  • Britain tackles the EU's edict of an ``ever closer union'

When U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron embarked on his European Union referendum gambit, he called for the same nebulous “reforms” to the EU that British politicians of all stripes had been preaching for years.

The word “competitiveness” rang out 10 times in Cameron’s call to arms in January 2013 and “prosperity” five times. There was nary a mention of migration, unless you count Cameron’s blessing of the rest of Europe for letting “hundreds of thousands” of British citizens live, work and retire there.

U.K.'s Cameron Speaks on EU Membership

In the talks to settle Britain’s place in the EU that ended in Brussels late Friday, the original priorities were barely recognizable. The waffly competitiveness demand was dispatched with a declaration that recommits the EU to well-entrenched policies of cutting red tape on businesses and pursuing trans-Atlantic free trade.

In the end, it was mainly about migration, but not as Cameron once foresaw. By 2014 he stopped seeing Europe as a playground for British expats and started seeing it -- primarily eastern Europe -- as the exporter of low-wage workers who came to mooch on the British welfare system.

Big Dog, Small Dog

Britain’s maneuvers to cut benefits for EU job-holders took on a harder edge in 2015 as Middle Eastern war refugees inundated parts of Europe, fueling anti-foreigner sentiment across the continent with a stridently anti-EU variant among Britain’s nationalists.

Cameron upped the ante at the summit, pushing for longer-lasting welfare restrictions than previously proposed. He prevailed, mostly, thanks to what Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico -- who called for openness in Britain while riding anti-immigration feelings at home -- termed the “big dog and small dog” theory of power politics. Britain, he said, carries so much weight that its potential exit is “terrifying.”

Some elements of Cameron’s 2013 appeal survived. He forced through a watering-down of the EU treaty’s exhortation to “an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe.” It was Britain’s second lunge at this holy EU writ, Cameron’s Conservative predecessor John Major having secured an initial dilution in 1991.

Depending on your vantage point, the get-outs now attached to the “ever closer” clause are either meaningless or spell doom for the grand European unification experiment that arose from the ashes of World War II. Time will tell.

Cameron’s ‘Red Card’

For Dalia Grybauskaite, president of Lithuania, the EU theology was a sideshow. “No matter what face-lifting or face-saving we perform here, it’s only up to British people to decide,” she said.

There was little left from Cameron’s 2013 plea to claw back powers from what detractors see as the interventionist, bureaucratically venturesome EU. In a “balance of competences” review that was quickly filed away, his own government found there was precious little clawing to do.

Cameron scored at least symbolic victories on two other parts of the 2013 manifesto, which, reflecting the original free-trade thrust, was delivered to an audience of businesspeople at Bloomberg LP’s London headquarters. He got a “red card” enabling national parliaments to halt European Commission legislative proposals -- never mind that it could be turned against him by, for example, opponents of Britain’s crusade for EU-wide deregulation.

No EU constitutional summit would be complete without an old-fashioned dustup between Britain and France, and this one was true to form. Here, Cameron obtained guarantees sought since 2013 that countries using the euro wouldn’t trample on the economic prerogatives of those like Britain on the outside.

Under the accord, Britain could stop the clock on some 19-nation euro decisions and force a discussion at the 28-nation summit level. The great unknown is how it will work in practice. As Andrew Duff, a British Liberal Democrat once in the European Parliament, said in a blog post: “The French, especially, have ideological objections to the interference of the English in euro business.”

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