British Prime Minister David Cameron likes to ask difficult questions. After signing a deal setting out terms for a Scottish independence referendum in 2014, in three or four years the British people might be asked in a referendum to face 'the simple choice' of being in or out the European Union. For this to happen two conditions must be met: that David Cameron is re-elected with a comfortable majority, and that he is able to renegotiate the UK's relationship with the EU.
Cameron is right that 'people must have their say on Europe.' And he is right for the need to 'confront the issue and lead the debate'. No one should be afraid to discuss whether the European Union is still fit for purpose and whether and how it should change to meet the challenges of an increasingly integrated and connected world. A fresh and balanced debate is preferable to the option of kicking the can down the road and accepting Europe by default.
Other member states should follow the UK and ask their people to think about the pros and cons of EU membership. As countries that are tied together in Europe's economic and monetary union prepare to deepen their integration, it is appropriate to question the reasons for being together. Does the EU create more value than the sum of its parts? And how will EU member states that are not part of the currency union engage with an ever more economically - and even politically - integrated eurozone?
Unfortunately David Cameron is not asking the right questions. The debate he is eager to trigger will further polarize public opinion into two camps – the pro-EU and the anti-EU. It is baffling how confident each camp is of the gains for Britain to be in or out. Assessing the gains and costs in pure accounting terms is methodologically wrong and does not lead anywhere. The arguments each camp brings forward are trivial. It seems that the EU membership is just a matter of rules and regulations, or punching above weight in foreign policy, or even sharing the same money and monetary policy.
A serious debate should consider how well the EU has so far served its purpose – by chance or by design - whether it is still embedded in post-war history and rhetoric, and how much it needs to change to be fit for an ever changing world. Unfortunately by courting British insularity and conjuring up a British break-up with the EU Mr Cameron has made a serious debate on Europe and the EU even more difficult. In the meantime the eurozone will move ahead with its integration by default.
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