Have we finally reached the end of this fractious alliance? Is Britain well on its way to once again becoming what it has always been both in geographical terms and in spirit: an island, politically and culturally far removed from Europe, which many people here simply call "the continent" with muted disdain?
On Thursday night, British Prime Minister David Cameron, 45, opted for "splendid isolation." As ex-Foreign Minister David Miliband described it on Twitter, the decision meant that the UK had "jumped into a rowing boat … next to a … supertanker." By using his country's veto against the plan that aimed to solve the euro and debt crises by amending the EU treaties -- and that enjoyed the backing of most EU member states -- Cameron has actually shown Great Britain's weakness. Indeed, Cameron has forced his EU partners to go looking for a solution outside of the treaties and in a new organization, which the British will only be able to peer at over the fence.
The Beginning of the End
The fact is that Cameron gained absolutely no benefit from his actions. He will soon have less influence and more adversaries in Europe. And he has destroyed much.
The notion of European unity is finally gone. In the future, in addition to the old EU club of 27 states, there will also be one made up of the 17 euro-zone countries and their sympathizers. Isolated and paranoid, Britain will keep armies of lawyers busy watching over the EU like chained dogs to make sure that its institutions don't ever assume an active role in matters that only concern the euro countries.
Since joining what is now called the EU in 1973, the British have annoyed many Europeans with their constant and now notorious demands for special treatment, rebates and blocking tactics. They have placed a one-sided emphasis on making sure that the EU's internal market functions as smoothly as possible, while sabotaging the establishment of a common foreign policy. They were just as allergic to the draft of a European constitution as they were to the free movement of workers.
Britain is entering a new era. Indeed, Cameron's veto marks the beginning of the end of Britain's days as a member of the EU. Charles Grant is the director of the Centre for European Reform, a London-based think tank whose website describes it as being "devoted to making the European Union work better and strengthening its role in the world" as well as "pro-European but not uncritical." Grant gives the island a decade at most before it severs its ties with Brussels for good. Like Switzerland, Britain will then be proud and free -- but, unlike Switzerland, it will also have nuclear weapons and a permanent seat on the UN Security Council.
In London, what happened on that dramatic night in Brussels wasn't really all that surprising. Cameron had already announced what he would do if the rest of his EU partners refused to back off from their demand for a tax on financial transactions.
In fact, the EU plan for the banks would have cost the British a disproportionately large amount of money and market share. In the end, that's why Cameron couldn't do things any differently -- and probably didn't want to, either. In truth, he is quite a hardline euroskeptic. Until now, his aversion to the EU was only tempered by his pragmatism and by the fact that his ruling coalition includes the rather pro-European Liberal Democrats, many of whom are now seething with rage.
But his own party pushed him into distancing Britain from the continent. The Tories are campaigning against the European project more ferociously than they did in the days of Margaret Thatcher. Many people in Britain view the EU as a neo-Stalinist power machine whose only aspiration is to eliminate their democracy and economy.
Strident EU-bashing was once just a hobby of politicians on the fringe. But, in the absence of any dedicated advocates, it has spread like wildfire. When Reverend Peter Mullen, the chaplain of the London Stock Exchange, claims that the EU is "the opposite of civilization" and "the enemy of Europe," there are many who will say "amen" -- and nothing more.
Four years ago, a clear majority of Britons still wanted to stay in the EU. But that's no longer the case, as 51 percent want out. And Cameron has now shown them the way.
Of course, there's always a chance that things will turn out better for Europe without the British. But no one can say for sure. Despite all the anger, they might soon be missed. Losing Britain means losing a voice that carries weight outside EU borders, as well.
And, ironically enough, it might just be the Germans who regret losing the United Kingdom. London's dedication to free trade, to the rule of law and to having things run in an orderly manner is not so easy to replace. Berlin is losing a partner who was a dependable counterweight to the club of those states in southern Europe whose freewheeling financial policies the restrained Germans have always abhorred.