David Cameron's Next Crisis

Wave hello to Europe, not goodbye.

Photographer: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

With Greece, the European Union has proved it is very good at alienating member states. Now it needs to show it knows how to court them.

The U.K. is among the EU's largest, most important and most unhappy members, and newly reelected Prime Minister David Cameron has pledged to call a referendum by the end of 2017 on whether the U.K. should remain in the EU. Rather than risk annoying British voters with two years of Conservative Party infighting, Cameron should move swiftly to keep his pledge. And the EU should waste no time helping him to persuade British voters to stay.

QuickTake Will Britain Leave the EU?

The research group Open Europe estimates there's only a 17 percent chance of the U.K. leaving the EU, and opinion polls consistently show that 45 to 56 percent of British respondents favor staying. At the same time, the U.K. Independence Party, standing in its first election, won 13 percent of the vote on an anti-immigration platform tinged with more than a hint of racism and xenophobia. Cameron needs to address that festering disquiet about the pace of immigration, particularly from the EU's newer and poorer members, and the accompanying scaremongering about so-called benefit tourists.

It would be a mistake to set a deadline, and it would be foolish for Britain to make unrealistic demands of the EU, particularly on the free movement of citizens across borders within the bloc. But Cameron does need to capitalize on his momentum. He has acknowledged the importance of the issue by giving responsibility for EU negotiations to Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne.

These discussions won't be easy, German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble showed last week when he chided Osborne for his "silly" and "unnecessary" meddling in the euro-zone debt crisis. On the larger question of EU reform, he said, perhaps Germany and the U.K. could work together to "make a few things a little less bureaucratic."

Schaeuble will not win any points for ambition, much less a popularity contest. The EU needs to recognize its enlightened self-interest in keeping Britain in the club.

Look at the crisis prompted by the mere possibility that Greece might have to leave the euro -- a possibility for which the EU itself, by failing to offer concessions when it would have mattered, bears no small measure of blame. Does the EU really want to flirt with the possibility of losing the U.K.? At least European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker appears not to. "I don’t want Britain to leave the European Union," he told Cameron in a congratulatory letter just after the U.K. election.

That leaves room for optimism, even if Juncker did go on to say that he also didn’t want the U.K. to impose its agenda on the EU. And it'll be up to Cameron to find a middle ground between pandering to his anti-European backbenchers and finding common ground with other European leaders who might tacitly support reform but won't publicly champion treaty amendments. In Europe-wide elections last year, parties campaigning against the EU garnered enough support to suggest that plenty of other European nations have misgivings about ceding more sovereignty to Brussels.

If the EU is serious that it wants Britain to stay at the heart of Europe, it needs to help Cameron in his battle for the hearts, minds and votes of the British public. And Cameron needs to put the European question before the people sooner rather than later, while he is in the strongest possible position to win the argument -- and the vote.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.