Cameron’s Referendum Gamble

Britain’s prime minister, David Cameron, is facing the biggest challenge of his career. The referendum expected this June on whether the country should stay in the European Union will define his legacy.

This month, Mr. Cameron announced a draft deal on his renegotiation over the terms of Britain’s membership in the European Union. While there were still plenty of details to iron out, the proposed agreement seemed to satisfy most of the prime minister’s demands. Last week, Mr. Cameron went back to Brussels in hopes of finalizing the deal.

Among the major points in the draft deal were assurances that non-eurozone countries would not be discriminated against; cutting back on clumsy European Union regulations; and an exemption from the European Union’s stated goal of “ever closer union” with, instead, a strengthening of the role of national parliaments. On these points, the package looked promising for Britain.

But the fate of a fourth demand — restricting welfare benefits for European Union migrants — remained precarious. The draft deal called for an “emergency brake” that Britain could apply to restrict welfare benefits to European migrants, but even as proposed, the brake would be relaxed over time, with more benefits paid to migrants the longer they stayed in Britain. Poland and Hungary in particular saw the measure as discriminating against their citizens.

Mr. Cameron’s first hurdle last week was to secure the support of other European leaders for the reform package. In this, he succeeded — though, under the deal, the emergency brake will end after seven years, which seems unlikely to mollify Mr. Cameron’s euroskeptic critics.

But even as Mr. Cameron toiled to win the backing of Britain’s European partners, he faced the bigger test of selling the package to his Conservative Party and his own ministers, as well as a hostile press and a skeptical public.

British leaders, including the current prime minister, have usually played down the benefits of European Union membership. This has tended to enable the so-called euroskeptics to hijack the debate.

A 2012 government report gave a largely positive assessment of the relationship between Britain and the union, yet you will rarely hear a minister trumpet the merits of membership. British politicians have been far too reticent about the benefits of belonging to the world’s largest single market. Rather than emphasizing how Europe has become a source of foreign investment vital to the British economy, they’ve preferred to rant about migrants and stifling “red tape” from Brussels.

Migrants from the European Union have often been used as scapegoats when the real culprit for weak economic performance has been government mismanagement. European migrants, in fact, are more likely than native-born Britons to be working and paying taxes, contributing more to the Treasury than they receive.

At the same time, the Cameron government has hardly trumpeted the British role in the European Union’s leadership on climate change. Without Britain’s efforts, alongside those of its union partners, France would probably have struggled to reach the new global agreement on climate change that was sealed in Paris in December.

Political leaders have rarely spoken of the value and importance of working with Britain’s European neighbors on sharing intelligence about terrorists or confronting organized crime. Tellingly, the United States wants Britain to stay in the union; Russia, on the other hand, would be delighted if it left.

The Cameron government has avoided explaining what leaving the European Union would mean: Economists point to stark possible consequences, including a serious dent to growth or, at worse, a recession. Renegotiating scores of trade agreements would be a huge and prolonged effort. Nor has the government made any provision for the roughly two million Britons living in other European Union countries, including tens of thousands who are unemployed and often claim more in benefits from those countries than migrants in Britain do.

The result is that myths and disinformation have flourished. Opinion polls in Britain consistently show high levels of ambivalence, ignorance and suspicion about the European Union. Soon after the draft deal was announced, a YouGov survey showed an increase in support of a British exit, or Brexit, with 45 percent of respondents in favor of leaving the union and 36 percent against — although other recent polls have shown a majority in favor of staying in.

If a majority in England votes to leave the Europe Union, while a majority of Scots votes to remain, this could lead to another referendum on whether Scotland should remain in the United Kingdom. Nationalists would push for an independent Scotland to rejoin the European Union. Mr. Cameron’s legacy could then include the breakup of Britain.

Unchecked by its leadership, Conservative Party infighting over Europe has intensified. Some members of Parliament have already announced that they will vote to leave the union no matter what renegotiation their prime minister achieves — an Ipsos Mori survey found that a fifth of Tory parliamentarians who responded would vote for Brexit regardless of the new deal. According to The Daily Telegraph and the BBC, six cabinet ministers would vote to leave, with six others yet to decide pending the result of the renegotiation.

Mr. Cameron already pledged to step down as party leader before the next general election, in 2020. Because of this, some contenders may view the referendum as a wedge issue in the future leadership contest. One likely candidate, Boris Johnson, London’s mayor, has already announced that he will campaign against Mr. Cameron’s deal.

This framing of the debate in party terms distracts from a serious conversation about Britain’s relationship with Europe. Britain faces this referendum not in response to any crisis within Europe, but because Mr. Cameron decided he had to appease the euroskeptics in his own party.

Managing the Conservative Party’s neurosis about Europe will now take bold leadership. Only if Mr. Cameron is clear about the consequences of Brexit — and the benefits of staying in — can he win the argument and secure a favorable legacy.

Geoffrey Edwards is an emeritus reader in European studies at the University of Cambridge, England. Guy Edwards, his son, is a co-director of the Climate and Development Lab at Brown.

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