Playing the Part

Since his reelection as British Prime Minister earlier this year, David Cameron has released numerous statements on Britain’s current status within the European Union and where he sees it heading over the next few years. Cameron pledged back in January 2013 that he would allow the public to vote on whether Britain should leave the EU once the terms of British membership within the EU had been renegotiated. It is currently anticipated that such a referendum will be held by the end of 2017.

For now, Cameron maintains that he would like for Britain to stay in the EU if Britain is able to negotiate back some concessions, such as freeing businesses from “excessive interference” from Brussels and incorporating new members into the EU, but with new regulations to “prevent mass migrations across the continent.”

More broadly, Cameron has outlined four key policy areas that he plans to enact change in: competitiveness, immigration and welfare, sovereignty, and economic governance—all of which were salient issues in the 2015 British General Election. While Cameron has been rather vague about his objectives thus far, which has escalated tensions with German, French, and Belgian ministers, he claimed at the recent EU summit meeting that he would reveal his demands in early November.

Cameron has avoided commenting on whether he would change his mind on the potential for a “Brexit” if talks with other EU leaders do not go as planned.

Given Britain’s legacy of ‘Euroskepticism’ which dates back to Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative administration and Britain’s delayed entry into the European Economic Community in 1973, it is not particularly shocking that affairs have escalated to this point. What is interesting, however, is that approximately 40% of the British public actually supports a British exit, as one the most recent opinion polls pointed out.

What is driving such widespread discontent, extending beyond the expected support for a Brexit from the UK Independence Party to include the support of several Conservative and Labor Members of Parliament as well?

As Cameron noted in a recent interview with The Wall Street Journal, Europe’s current migrant crisis is complicating his efforts to negotiate Britain’s status in a reformed EU. The British public is clearly concerned about the vast number of refugees from Syria and other nations that are flooding in Britain, and this is making it increasingly difficult for Cameron to argue in favor of Britain’s membership in the EU. In addition, if Cameron chooses to opt out of EU plans for relocating refugees throughout Europe, he will run the risk of diminishing Britain’s negotiating power among the Europeans.

Scholars and politicians have a variety of opinions about whether it is in Britain’s economic interest to stay in the EU, and both sides have a degree of legitimacy. While leaving the EU would give Britain more autonomy and relieve some of her financial burdens, European and American business leaders are worried that, without a British link between the US and Europe, trade will suffer and it will become more difficult for Americans to conduct business in Europe. As one US chief executive—with a personal stake in the matter because his company’s European operations are based out of London—conceded, “The prospect of not being able to operate seamlessly across Europe [if Britain left the EU] is worrying.”

Ultimately, there will not be a great deal of clarity surrounding Cameron’s intentions until early November, but until then, he will have to continue mediating between a Euroskeptic British public and EU leaders who fear they cannot rely on Britain to work with them and relocate the waves of refugees from a number war-torn countries.

The referendum likely will not take place until 2017, but the difficulties surrounding it must be dealt with in the short-term in order to find an optimal ground between so many competing interests.