David Cameron's referendum on EU could imperil Britain

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 31 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 31 January, 2013, 2:27am

Britain's identity crisis over its role in Europe can be baffling to outsiders. From a business and economic perspective, there is no question that the two need one another. Yet the matter, after decades of discussion in the British parliament, continues to be a political hot potato. But Prime Minister David Cameron's solution of a referendum to decide whether the nation stays in the European Union or leaves is not what is needed. He should instead be putting the interests of his country ahead of those of politicians.

Most Britons do not consider EU membership an issue of high priority. For Cameron, it is, though. He wants to shore up his Conservative Party's standing by the next general election in 2015. Amid the troubles in the euro zone and the likelihood that they will continue for some time, he is eager to undermine euro sceptics blotting Britain's political landscape. To his mind, putting the issue on the table, laying out goals and then pushing for resolutions will make what is now grey, black and white.

He fleshed out his plans in a much-anticipated speech on January 23. The EU, he said, should be about free trade and business competitiveness. Ideally, it should be a "leaner, less bureaucratic union", with co-operation only on cross-border issues like terrorism. Decisions affecting the people of a particular country should be taken by the government they elected. The referendum would be held after Britain's position within the EU had been renegotiated, hopefully by 2018.

The strategy has substantial risks. Companies thinking of investing are likely to hold off until the result of the referendum is known. The country's departure from the EU would be economically and financially damaging. Negotiations may not go as Cameron envisages, putting Britain in a difficult situation.

For the proposals to have any meaning, the Conservatives will have to win the next election with a majority. Regardless of that outcome, though, Cameron's ideas on free trade and a leaner EU are worth wider European discussion. A referendum based on a political gamble has no place, though.