There was a celebratory mood among those sitting on the green benches in Britain's House of Commons on Wednesday. Among the ranks of the Conservatives, one critic of David Cameron after the other stood and praised the prime minister as the country's savior. Even Bill Cash, the most outspoken critic of Cameron's EU policies, expressed his respect.
Indeed, Cameron's announcement on Wednesday that his government would hold a referendum on Britain's membership in the 27-nation bloc before the end of 2017 put the island's euroskeptics in an ecstatic mood. The conservative Daily Telegraph wrote that Cameron "deserves extensive applause" for offering "the British public the key to the exit, an act of faith that even the sainted Mrs. Thatcher never managed."
With the announcement, Cameron has achieved his first goal. His fractured Conservative Party looked more united than ever on Wednesday. Euroskeptic Tory parliamentarian Mark Pritchard called it "a major triumph" that was "well considered, thoughtful and long overdue," adding that it would forge a "new consensus" for the party on Europe.
But Cameron also chalked up a second success on the domestic political scene because the issue of Britian's EU membership is driving a wedge into the Labour Party. Speaking in the House of Commons, opposition leader Ed Miliband criticized the call for a referendum, saying that it would cause uncertainty and harm the British economy. Nevertheless, many in his party see things differently -- and actually want to include a promise to hold a referendum in its platform for the next election. Before then, however, Cameron will get to watch as the opposition engages in internecine quarrels rather than battling the prime minister.
Cameron Places Hopes on Allies Merkel and Rutte
Still, the satisfaction Cameron enjoys from these domestic gains probably won't last long. The EU problem will catch up with him again soon -- in other words, when it becomes obvious that the demands he has made on Brussels have fallen on deaf ears.
Cameron was already defending himself in an international forum on Thursday. Speaking at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Cameron warned European leaders against forcing member countries into ever-deeper political union. "Countries in Europe have their histories, their traditions, their institutions, want their own sovereignty, their ability to make their own choices," Cameron said. "And to try and shoehorn countries into a centralized political union would be a great mistake for Europe, and Britain wouldn't be part of it."
In any case, Cameron has a two-stage plan: First he wants to negotiate a "better deal" that will give Britain further exceptions to EU regulations. Then he wants his people to vote on whether they want to remain in the EU under these new terms.
Cameron is betting that his EU partners will find a way to grant him concessions out of their desire to make sure that Britain remains part of the EU. And he's hoping that support for such exceptions will come from other reform-minded members of the bloc, such as Germany, the Netherlands and the Scandinavian countries.
However, initial reactions from these countries' governments were not particularly promising. In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel said that she was "of course prepared to talk about British wishes," which the British media interpreted as proof that Cameron's aggressive bargaining style was the right one. The Daily Telegraph, for example, interpreted Merkel's comment as signaling a "major victory."
But Merkel's response is really nothing more than a noncommittal and polite formality aimed at preventing any escalation of tensions between German and British officials. After all, locking horns with Cameron now would be a bad idea since she needs his signature in early February, when EU leaders meet for a summit to approve the bloc's budget for the next seven years.
Other leaders perceived to be warmer toward reform proposals also gave a cool response to his speech. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said he didn't want to interfere with a domestic political issue in Britain, but followed up a day later in Davos saying he backed some of Cameron's statements. Meanwhile, Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt said that the United Kingdom and Denmark, which is also not a member of the euro zone, "have chosen to follow two different paths" and that Danish interest "are best served by staying as close to the EU core as possible." Finally, Swedish Prime Foreign Minister Carl Bildt tweeted that: "Flexibility sounds fine, but if you open up to a 28-speed Europe, at the end of the day there is no Europe at all. Just a mess."
Deceptive Domestic Calm
There are no signs, either, that this opposition will abate anytime soon. Sooner or later, the British are likely to voice increasing doubt about Cameron's strategy. Cameron said that he would hold the referendum "in the first half" of the next parliamentary term if his party wins the next general election, scheduled for 2015. But two years is still a long way off. And if the Tories can't show that they've secured any concessions by then, Cameron is likely to face ire anew from the euroskeptic ranks of his party in parliament.
There is also the possibility that Cameron won't be in charge anymore following the 2015 election. Indeed, merely holding out the prospect of a referendum on EU membership won't be enough to drive masses of voters into his party's arms. In fact, the British polling company Ipsos MORI found that most British voters are indifferent to the EU issue and that they are primarily concerned about the country's ailing economy. This has led EU backers such as Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister with the Liberal Democrats, to portray the referendum as a dangerous distraction from genuinely important issues.
By the time of the referendum, at the latest, the old divisions within the Conservative Party will surely resurface. While Cameron will advocate remaining in the EU under new terms, euroskeptic members of parliament within his Conservative Party -- such as Daniel Hannan, in the European Parliament, and Douglas Carswell, in the House of Commons -- have already signaled that they will call for a "Brixit," the name given to a possible British exit from the EU.
Indeed, it appears that Cameron cannot rid the Tories of their traditional curse. In 2005, at the beginning of his term as leader of the Conservative Party, he suggested that the Tories could solve the issue of divisiveness by finally ceasing to solely and incessantly talk about Europe. But now the party is right back where it was then.