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Wish Cameron Luck With His EU Blackmail

Marc Champion writes editorials on international affairs. He was previously Istanbul bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal. He was also an editor at the Financial Times, the editor-in-chief of the Moscow Times and a correspondent for the Independent in Washington, the Balkans and Moscow. He is based in London.
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What will Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron do if he fails to get all or some of the reforms he is demanding from the European Union? On Tuesday he threatened to lead the U.K. out of the union, but let's hope he's bluffing.

Cameron has finally put his demands for European reform into writing and the four points he laid out contain no surprises. The speech he gave to present them, however, was revealing.

He set himself a difficult task: to convince British voters that his four points would represent fundamental change in the union, while at the same time persuading the rest of Europe that he's asking only for "reasonable," achievable modifications. It's a tribute to Cameron's skill as a communicator that he managed to paper over the contradiction.

And yet it is there. For the first time, Cameron began in his speech to lay out the case for staying in the EU, which will please his European partners. He also, however, insisted that he won't make up his mind as to whether staying is the right thing to do until Europe has responded to his demands. That will appease the home team. Trouble is, his case for staying is too convincing.

He starts with "economic security." Those who think the U.K. should leave need to explain why Britain would be better off like Norway, he said: Bound to apply EU rules to gain access to the single market, but unable to influence the shaping of those rules:

So the irony is that if we followed the model of Norway, Europe's political interference in our country could actually grow, rather than shrink.

Or take trade. How would the U.K. be able to renegotiate better trade deals with other major economic powers, without having the heft of a 500 million-person market as leverage?

Then he moved onto national security. The world, Cameron noted, has only become more dangerous since he laid out his reform-followed-by-a-referendum strategy at Bloomberg's London office three years ago, what with the rise of Islamic State and Russia's invasion of Ukraine. So it would be an odd time to abandon the EU, an important "tool" for achieving Britain's security goals:

Our membership in the EU does matter for our national security and for the security of our allies. Which is one reason why our friends in the world strongly urge us to remain in the EU.

These are big considerations, the kind that led him to say that decision Britons make at the referendum, which could come as early as next June, will be perhaps "the biggest we will be making in our lifetimes." It would also be irreversible, he said, and would affect the lives and fortunes of their children and grandchildren.

So what's in these make-or-break reforms that could outweigh his case?

The most substantive is Cameron's demand to restructure the EU so that the U.K. and other countries not in the euro zone won't be disadvantaged by those inside, or forced into deeper integration that they neither need nor want. This matters but it's debatable whether it can be best achieved by Britain threatening to leave the bloc. Or to put it another way: it's too important to be achievable on the timetable Cameron has set for his referendum, so at best he's likely to get an unenforceable promise to change treaties later.

His second request is to make the EU more economically competitive. As Cameron's speech indicates, this is something for which the U.K. has always pressed and won't be achieved in a big bang reform.

His third category concerns national sovereignty. He wants greater powers for the EU's national parliaments and an opt-out from the EU's symbolically important principle of ever-closer union.

And finally, there's immigration. Cameron's most problematic request is for a four year delay before migrants from the EU can claim welfare benefits in the U.K. By saying he's open to other suggestions, Cameron acknowledged as much.

Critics who say Cameron's demands are meaningless are simply wrong. If he could succeed in getting Europe to quickly implement meaningful reforms on all four points, he would have achieved a great deal. EU populists might try to follow in his footsteps -- one reason Cameron's tactics are so resented on the continent. (The headline on the front cover of Wednesday's edition of French newspaper Liberation is: "Le Chantage de Cameron," or, Cameron's Blackmail.)

But what if he doesn't succeed? What if he gets patently unenforceable pledges of future treaty changes that fool no one, coupled with a refusal to let Britain discriminate in giving welfare payments to immigrants? None of this would make Britain worse off than it is today, but it could force him to make good on his threats.

Would Cameron really be willing to urge Britain out of the EU because he failed to reform welfare rules that would in any case have little impact on immigrant numbers? Economic migrants don't come to the U.K. in the hopes of being unemployed.

Cameron's speech was a reminder that his decision three years ago to make Britain's referendum contingent on first reforming the EU was not driven by a strategic analysis of the U.K.'s best long term interests; it was a tactic to keep anti-European rebels in his own party under control ahead of this year's elections.

He succeeded in that, but now he and Europe are stuck with the consequences of his tactic. Everyone, on both sides of the English Channel, should now wish Cameron success in his attempt at blackmailing other EU leaders into taking actions they should take anyhow. Then the real arguments for and against membership can begin.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Marc Champion at mchampion7@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Therese Raphael at traphael4@bloomberg.net