Editorial Board

Europe's Last Chance to Keep the U.K.

If Europe’s leaders want to keep the U.K. in the EU, they can't fight necessary reforms.

Europe, he needs you.

Photographer: BEN STANSALL/AFP/Getty Images

European Union summits are seldom momentous, but the meeting that starts on Thursday is different. Europe’s leaders, already at odds over the continent’s refugee crisis, must respond to Britain’s demand for EU reform -- and if they don’t get it right, the U.K. may end up quitting the union.

Prime Minister David Cameron and European Council President Donald Tusk have agreed on a reform plan. Europe’s other leaders should now endorse it. This would give Cameron his best chance of persuading Britain to remain a member when the issue is put to a referendum later this year. Anything less than endorsement, to say nothing of outright rejection, would make Cameron’s task more difficult.

Will Britain Leave the EU?

Europe should want Cameron to succeed: The EU would be weaker without Britain, and the likelihood of other exits might rise as well, putting the whole project in danger. Tactics aside, the Cameron-Tusk proposal deserves support on the merits. U.K euroskeptics call it vacuous, and many EU politicians think it yields too much to the perpetually troublesome Brits. In fact, on the main issues, the plan moves the union in the right direction, to the potential benefit of all members.

The need for EU reform is not a U.K. invention. Europe is suffering a crisis of confidence arising partly from the sense that it has lost its democratic moorings. National governments are seen as growing weaker and the EU’s governing institutions stronger, breaking the link between citizens and their rulers. This concern is widely shared.

The Cameron-Tusk proposal isn’t as radical as Britain’s hardline euroskeptics might have wished -- nothing short of exit would satisfy them -- but it addresses some anxiety about the EU’s anti-democratic drift. It clarifies the commitment in the EU’s treaties to "ever closer union," explaining that this is about fostering trust and understanding, not further political integration. The plan gives national parliaments new powers to reject EU laws. It recognizes that not all EU members will belong to the single-currency area, and it defends them against discrimination on that score.

All these changes are not just wise, they’re overdue.

The point of greatest contention has been the treatment of migrants within the EU. It’s unfortunate that Europe is discussing its constitutional design at a time when popular alarm over immigration is running so high. Nonetheless, the Cameron-Tusk proposal again strikes a reasonable balance. It upholds the principle of free movement of EU citizens within the union -- a core ideal, and one that serves the interests of the EU as a whole -- but at the same time acknowledges that the right to public benefits is conditional and that temporary restrictions on migration might sometimes be necessary.

If Europe’s other leaders want to keep the U.K. as a member of the EU -- and they should -- they need to stifle any irritation they may feel at being strong-armed into these reforms. Cameron is their ally in the larger cause of maintaining and strengthening the union and its member nations. If you can help an ally and yourself at the same time, you do it.