PARIS — This is no longer political fiction. The threat of Britain leaving the European Union could very well become reality soon. During the campaign for this Thursday's general election, Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron has said time and time again that, if he's reelected, he will organize a referendum by 2017 on the country's EU membership. And polls suggest that three-quarters of the electorate support this initiative, even though it's still unclear how they would actually vote if given the chance.
In any case, there's already a name for a potential decision to leave the EU: "Brexit." And it has many supporters too, especially inside the Conservatives' ranks. Despite Cameron’s personal wish to remain in the EU, his party, which was formerly pro-Europe, is now dominated by Europhobic backbenchers convinced that Brussels flouts Westminster's sovereignty and that it's in the UK's best interest to move away from a limping continent to preserve its own economic recovery.
What's more, Cameron sees himself forced into outdoing Nigel Farage and his virulently anti-EU UK Independence Party. The prime minister is thus making a point of renegotiating Britain's membership and hopes to be able to opt out of the treaties that he believes undermine his country's interests.
A man wearing a Nigel Farage mask manipulating a David Cameron marionette — Photo: Joel Goodman/London News Pictures/ZUMA
Help from across the Channel
The stage seems set for a worst-case scenario: a British exit from the EU, almost by accident. Day in and day out, tabloids denounce to the point of absurdity the unbearable cost of EU membership, EU rules and Brussels' meddling in British matters.
European subsidies for infrastructure projects and agriculture are ignored, as are the advantages of the single market. Of course, those in favor of remaining inside the EU are making their voices heard, starting with Ed Miliband, the Labour leader campaigning to succeed Cameron as prime minister, who has been warning the electorate against the "disastrous" consequences of an EU exit. But the support of the business sector, which used to be a given, is crumbling.
It has therefore become urgent to help the British escape from this Europhobic trap. Great Britain obviously belongs in Europe, so much so in fact that over time it built itself a special status within the EU, in line with its specific island identity: It's neither part of the Euro single currency nor the Schengen Area of common borders.
A "Brexit" would mean a considerable loss of influence for London. But it would also have terrible consequences for the European Union. Without Britain, Europe wouldn't really be Europe.
Its economic and financial might, its standing in all ongoing commercial negotiations, as well as its influence on the world stage, would be badly damaged. Moreover, its precious post-War stability would be questioned. Without the UK, Germany's supremacy inside the EU would be even greater, and France would find itself further isolated and lacking a precious diplomatic and military partner.
To avoid this worst-case scenario, we need to negotiate amendments that could swing the public opinion in the EU's favor. But we must also help those who defend Europe across the Channel to show what the European Union can achieve in terms of freedom of movement, employment and peace.