British Prime Minister David Cameron is ruffling feathers in Brussels by vowing, if he is reelected, to allow the British people to vote on whether to stay in the European Union. “It is time for the British people to have their say. It is time to settle this European question in British politics,” he said in a long-anticipated speech.
What an outrage—letting the voters rather than the Brussels bureaucrats have their say! That, at least, is the view in Brussels.
I am agnostic on whether the UK should remain as part of the EU or not—there are good arguments on both sides—but I am pretty sure the U.S. should not be pushing to keep the UK in. Yet that is just what the Obama administration seems to be doing.
On a recent visit to London, Phil Gordon, the assistant secretary of state for European affairs, warned against holding a referendum. “We welcome an outward-looking European Union with Britain in it. We benefit when the EU is unified, speaking with a single voice, and focused on our shared interests around the world and in Europe,” he said, adding: “We want to see a strong British voice in that European Union. That is in the American interest.”
Well, that’s one view of the American interest. The UK undoubtedly can advocate an Atlanticist, pro-American viewpoint within the councils of the EU, although it is not always going to carry the day over other EU members. But there is an equally—if not more—plausible argument to be made that the U.S. would benefit from Britain’s exit from the EU.
The UK is, after all, one of our oldest and closest allies. But with the EU increasingly attempting to push for a unified foreign policy the danger is that in the future Britain will be less likely to stand with the United States. If British action in a future Afghanistan or Iraq would be predicated on getting the approval of the rest of the EU, the likelihood is that the U.S. will be left to fight alone.
It is hardly obvious, in sum, that our interest lies in keeping the EU together. Better to let the British figure out on their own the future of their country. The U.S. has no call to intrude itself into this internal debate.