Cameron’s EU Referendum: Lucky Gamble or Mission Impossible?

Cameron’s EU Referendum: Lucky Gamble or Mission Impossible?
U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron during a speech, London, U.K., May 21, 2015 (U.K. government photo by Arron Hoare).

British Prime Minister David Cameron once implored his fellow Conservative Party members to “stop banging on about Europe.” But that was back in 2006, when he was just running the party as its new leader. In a speech in January 2013, as his awkward coalition government with the pro-European Union Liberal Democrats was enacting unpopular austerity cuts at home, Cameron changed course. He promised that, if re-elected, he would renegotiate the fundamental terms of the United Kingdom’s EU membership and put the result up for an in-or-out referendum to be held by the end of 2017.

Since all opinion polls ahead of parliamentary elections this spring showed Britain headed for another hung parliament, with neither Labour nor Liberal Democrats eager to gamble away Britain’s European future, no one took Cameron’s threat of a referendum too seriously. Then the Conservatives beat all the odds and won a narrow majority in May. Cameron’s triumphant return to 10 Downing Street has put a British EU referendum firmly on the agenda; it could now take place as soon as May 2016.

Yet Cameron’s plan is still short on specifics. What are the broad contours of British demands for a “new deal” with Europe? How likely is Cameron to get such a deal? And if successful, will the British people vote to stay in a reformed European Union? Cameron is undoubtedly taking a significant risk by putting Britain’s EU membership up for renegotiation. International treaties are notoriously hard to change, and Cameron has remained vague on what exactly he wants to achieve. The real question is whether Cameron can claw back certain substantive powers from the EU to London, or whether he will only achieve some largely symbolic victories. His tour of European capitals over the past few weeks suggests that there are plenty of EU leaders who are willing to keep the United Kingdom in the EU by giving it a fair deal, as long as British demands are reasonable. Cameron officially tabled the outline of his reform agenda at yesterday’s EU heads of state summit, but it remains to be seen whether he will be able to obtain formal treaty changes, as opposed to political assurances, before the referendum takes place.

Keep reading for free!

Get instant access to the rest of this article by submitting your email address below. You'll also get access to three articles of your choice each month and our free newsletter:

Or, Subscribe now to get full access.

Already a subscriber? Log in here .

What you’ll get with an All-Access subscription to World Politics Review:

A WPR subscription is like no other resource — it’s like having a personal curator and expert analyst of global affairs news. Subscribe now, and you’ll get:

  • Immediate and instant access to the full searchable library of tens of thousands of articles.
  • Daily articles with original analysis, written by leading topic experts, delivered to you every weekday.
  • Regular in-depth articles with deep dives into important issues and countries.
  • The Daily Review email, with our take on the day’s most important news, the latest WPR analysis, what’s on our radar, and more.
  • The Weekly Review email, with quick summaries of the week’s most important coverage, and what’s to come.
  • Completely ad-free reading.

And all of this is available to you when you subscribe today.

More World Politics Review