When in 2013 Prime Minister David Cameron called for a referendum on whether Britain should stay in the European Union (EU), he began from a remarkably narrow focus. It is clear now that he thought little about the big economic and geopolitical issues of Brexit that have subsequently gained so much attention. Rather his concerns centered on domestic electoral politics, to prepare for the upcoming general election by quieting the Euosceptics within his own party and stealing a march on his Labour and UK Independence Party opposition. It worked. He handily won an unexpected majority in last year’s election. But now with the referendum scheduled for June, all the serious consequences of Brexit, those that Cameron had previously ignored, have advanced to center stage, and there are many. Of these, surely the most surprising is how Britain’s move has prompted other EU members to question fundamental organizational structures and press for reform.
Cameron certainly drew out these matters unintentionally. Having scheduled the referendum, he felt obliged before the vote to re-negotiate the terms of Britain’s membership. He approached the EU leadership with the preferences of his electorate, giving economics and specific policies short shrift and stressing questions of sovereignty. The British public wants more control over the county’s borders, generally and especially in the face of the huge migration under which all of Europe is now reeling. A large portion of the electorate also objects to how EU citizens can migrate to Britain, take advantage of the country’s generous welfare benefits, and then send the money out of the country. Cameron is also well aware that much of his public objects to Brussels’ regulatory reach and legal sway, in part because they allegedly impede Britain’s ability to tailor policies on competitiveness, innovation, jobs, and growth, but, mostly because EU rule-makers and judges seem to face no democratic check even as they override laws passed by Britain’s own legitimately elected representatives in Westminster.
He did all this as part of his election promise. He could not have known that others in Europe would begin to embrace the agenda that it is not even clear he personally embraces. Indeed, until Cameron carried these concerns to Brussels, Europe had heard little or no talk of such matters. That is no longer true.
Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has been most vocal. Italy’s position does differ some from Britain’s. The two counties agree, however, that they would prefer a more flexible organizational arrangement within the union. Indeed, Italy sees enough common ground with Britain to have had its foreign minister, Paolo Gentiloni, write a public plea for reform jointly with his British counterpart, Philip Hammond. There, the two men call on EU leadership to simplify “its functioning, its procedures, and its rules” and to “embrace a new [organizational] model [with the] flexibility to manage greater or lesser integration.” Even in their joint work, Italy admits a preference for more federal structure than Britain wants, but such differences are less noteworthy than how Britain’s move has evoked such enthusiastic support.
In retrospect, now that Renzi has made his position clear, it is hardly a surprise. Italy, after all, struggles with its own immigration problems and still faces strains from the euro-zone’s ongoing fiscal-financial crisis. With Italy’s move it is now entirely plausible that other countries will join in making similar demands. Particularly in Europe’s periphery, many face similar problems or worse. Should such a push become general, it will surely stand as the most remarkable and unforeseeable consequence of Cameron’s otherwise cynical domestic political ploy. Perhaps even more remarkable, Britain, and its prime minister, might well end up leading such a movement, if, that is, the British vote to stay in the union. Even if they were to leave, such a fundamental reform push might nonetheless carry on, using the loss of that important economy as a stick with which to beat the EU leadership. It could ultimately try the union even more than the fiscal-financial crisis that has plagued Europe off and on since 2010.