Cameron Needs Help to Keep the U.K. in the EU

Get it together, fellas.

Photographer: WPA Pool

First things first: Britain needs Europe, and Europe needs Britain. Both U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron and European Union President Donald Tusk agree on this point, and they need to be more emphatic about it in the debate over the U.K.’s membership in the EU.

A referendum on that question could happen as soon as June, and opinion in the country is closely divided. Cameron has followed a risky strategy of promising voters he would force (desperately needed) reform on the EU as a condition of the U.K.’s continued membership.

Last Tuesday, Tusk gave Cameron a proposed set of changes to the union’s rules. The plan, which Cameron has welcomed, will be up for debate at an EU summit on Feb. 18. It includes measures to shield non-euro-zone countries from euro-zone policy, and to put U.K. financial regulation more firmly under U.K. control. It includes new thinking on national sovereignty. It reaffirms the commitment to improve competitiveness. It tweaks the rules on migrants.

Will Britain Leave the EU?

These ideas are worthwhile but far from radical: They won’t satisfy the euroskeptics in Cameron’s own party. At the same time, they’re unlikely to sail through unopposed by other EU leaders. This puts the prime minister in a tight spot: The forthcoming summit may present him with a diminished version of a plan that’s just been mocked as worthless by much of the U.K. press.

Cameron set himself up for failure in promising fundamental reform on such a tight schedule. Nonetheless, Tusk’s proposals aren’t worthless. Valuable in their own right, they also offer grounds for hope that the EU is capable of further reform -- which, to be sure, it needs. The plan is a basis for compromise.

What must happen to put that compromise into effect?

Britain’s hard-line euroskeptics won’t ever be assuaged, but those who think that Britain is better off in Europe, whatever their opinion of Cameron and his party, need to rally in support of his effort to close this deal and sell it to the country. Let Cameron-bashing wait for the moment. There'll be plenty of time for politics as usual later.

In the same way, Europe’s other leaders need to quell any desire they may have to punish Cameron’s assertiveness by embarrassing him at the summit -- either by blocking Tusk’s proposal or by dismissing it as weightless.

In closing the deal, the main sticking point for both sides is migration within the EU. Other EU leaders have been reluctant to budge on this, and rightly so: Restrictions on free movement of EU citizens clash with a core principle of the union. Yet anti-immigrant sentiment is running high in Britain, as elsewhere in the union, and shouldn’t be flatly ignored. Tusk proposes allowing temporary restrictions on migrants’ ability to claim in-work benefits -- less than Cameron led voters to expect, but good enough.

Giving ground there, Cameron should ask for more on the issue of sovereignty -- and it would serve the interests of the other EU countries to go along. Tusk’s proposal says the union’s treaty commitment to “ever closer union” is about promoting “trust and understanding among peoples living in open and democratic societies” and not a commitment to political integration. EU leaders should affirm and formalize this understanding.

The fate of “ever closer union” is often dismissed as unimportant -- just words. Yet words matter. The EU’s underlying problem is that too big a gap has grown between its system of governance and its citizens. Recognizing this problem is the first step toward solving it.

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