Brexit: so what?

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United Kingdom: a country once admired in the European Union, but now in the dumps. Brexit: the term used for the UK’s exit from the European Union, a real possibility in view of what the polls are saying about the mood of British public opinion. Referendum: an instrument of direct democracy that may turn against its promoters. Tory: a dangerous creature with well-known propensities for ousting prime ministers at the cost of EU policy. Cameron: British prime minister who thinks he can ride a tiger. Blackmail: the perception now dominant in Europe about what defines David Cameron’s EU policy.

Stir up all these elements and you get an idea of the turn taken by the debate on the UK’s possible exit from the EU. I have recently returned from London surprised at the hostility that pervades relations between the British government and the European Union. London has been stumbling forward in the dark since 2011, when Cameron was frustrated in his attempt to earn concessions for the UK at the cost of blocking crucial decisions on the euro crisis. That fateful night he made a miscalculation: his European partners decided to ignore his demands and resort to a dodge – the preparation of an ad hoc treaty of an intergovernmental nature – in order to negotiate new fiscal-stability rules for the euro zone without the need for British consent, or a reform of the EU treaties.

But Cameron swore vengeance and is now standing guard at the gates of the EU to make sure that, in the case of renegotiation of the EU treaties, the United Kingdom can exploit its right of veto to obtain a new set of concessions that, he says, will enable him to win a referendum on the UK remaining in the EU. Cameron’s strategy is impeccable, for the EU needs a new treaty if it really wishes to complete monetary union with all the elements it continues to lack – lacks that brought us to this crisis.

But by holding the euro zone hostage, Cameron is only managing to further antagonize his EU partners. The British conservatives are now a virus who, with their anti-immigration policies, are now eroding the interior market, and giving encouragement to all the Europhobes on the continent. The result is that the governments of Germany, Italy, Spain, Poland and, of course, France are loath to give Cameron anything that he can show at home as a victory. And without anything substantial to show the British it is very possible that Cameron may lose that referendum. It is also possible that Cameron will not survive until 2017. According to the polls, in the next European elections the conservatives will drop to become the country’s third-ranking political force, behind Labour and the Euro-skeptics. The Tory will then decide if his leader stays or goes. And in that case, the other members of the EU will shrug and say: So what?

This article was originally published in El Pais. For the Spanish version, click here

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