David Cameron launched his renegotiation of Britain’s EU membership with the hope that “we can deliver a more flexible, adaptable and open European Union”.
As that optimism has faded, the resort to fear has grown. And so far, the US has lent a willing hand.
It’s startling to go back now to Cameron’s Bloomberg speech. It appeared to make the case for fundamental reform of the EU. But from the beginning, there was never any good reason to believe the EU was interested in fundamental reform.
The EU isn’t a top-down, supranational bureaucracy by chance: it’s that way by design. Britain’s involvement with it since the 1960s has had only one theme: Britain’s people and its politicians have consistently believed that Britain has more leverage over the EU than it has.
As long ago as the late 1950s, Britain proved unable to direct the EU into channels that suited British ideas and interests. Since then, Britain has lived within the steadily-narrowing limits of the possible.
Seemingly unaware of this history, Cameron based his speech on big, familiar, themes: the need to address the status and failures of the euro, the need for increased EU competitiveness, and above all the need for increased democratic accountability in Brussels.
All of these themes are true, and all have been recognised as true in Britain for years.
Over the past three years, the grandiose rhetoric of Cameron’s speech has trickled away. The EU is not going to change its treaties to accommodate Britain. Anything Cameron gets will be mere words, subject to being ignored when convenient, or over-ridden by the EU’s imperial judiciary.
Today, the driving force behind public support of Brexit is concern over immigration. That enormous issue has been reduced down to a squabble over whether, or how, Britain can impose a waiting period on the benefits it gives to immigrants from the EU.
But this is rot. Immigrants do not come to Britain to sponge. As anyone who has spent five minutes in the pubs of London can see, they come to get jobs.
Undoubtedly, some abuse the system. And unquestionably, immigrants strain Britain’s public and social services. But the main factor pulling Europeans, and others, to Britain is that Britain, unlike most of the continent, has jobs to fill.
The way to control immigration into Britain is not to squabble about benefits. It is either to withdraw entirely from the EU, or to adopt Jeremy Corbyn’ s policies and destroy the British economy. That would discourage immigrants far more effectively than limiting their benefits.
One way to look at Cameron’s write-down of his ambitions is to see it as a story of his ongoing failure to get more than a morsel of his original menu. But his menu was never a serious one: no one who knows the history of Britain’s relations with the EU could regard it as credible. Nor was there any reason to believe the EU was willing to consider it.
Brussels will take Britain seriously only if Britain establishes the credibility it has lacked since the late 1950s. The only way for Britain to do that is to vote to leave the EU. Only then will Brussels negotiate a new relationship with it. Yet the whole point of Cameron’s 2013 speech was that he did not want Britain to leave the EU.
So these endless stories about minor points like immigrants’ benefits serve two purposes. First, they create the impression that Cameron is fighting hard for Britain. If he wrings a minor concession out of the EU, it will be hailed as a second Trafalgar.
Second, these stories accustom the British public to the belief that nothing more substantial can be done. For those who want Britain to stay in, this writing down of ambitions is a victory, because it forecloses the only way Britain can get real reform – that is, by exiting.
Along with victory claims will come stories proclaiming that Britain faces economic disaster if it dares to leave the EU. This tactic turned the tide in the 2014 Scottish referendum, and Project Fear will be deployed in far greater force to defend the EU.
These stories won’t come from Number 10: negativity about Britain’s prospects outside the EU won’t suit Cameron’s image as a visionary fighter for Britain. Many will come from the US, which hasn’t yet shaken off the shackles of its long-time role as the EU’s cheerleader.
Already, the Obama administration has weighed in against Brexit, as have US-based firms and several US think-tanks – funded, of course, by the EU. But several Republican contenders have spoken out to defend Britain’s right to chose.
Project Fear asserts that staying is safer than leaving. That’s untrue: staying in will only keep Britain exposed to the EU’s ever-tightening union. And Project Fear has a weakness: Cameron will need time to negotiate his fig leaf. Like the public, he over-rates his, and Britain’s, leverage.
If the negotiations drag on, the EU’s crises will worsen, and the risks of staying in will become ever more obvious.
And perhaps in 2016 the US will elect a president who recognises that America’s true interests rest in supporting the right of democratic nations to govern themselves.
That recognition has been a long time coming. It can’t arrive soon enough.
Ted R. Bromund is a senior research fellow in Anglo-American Relations, based at The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom at The Heritage Foundation in Washington.
This piece originally appeared in The Yorkshire Post.