State of the union

Cameron's promise of a referendum underlines the distance between the EU and its citizens

When David Cameron chose to address the vexed question of Britain's position in Europe through a long-delayed speech, few imagined that it would turn out to have a dramatic impact. The cynical expectation that preceded the British PM's speech suggested that his peroration would make the case for disillusionment with the European project while steering clear of any meaningful action. As it turns out, the boldness of his resolve marks a seminal moment for modern British political discourse. In promising to renegotiate Britain's relationship with the European Union and an eventual referendum on whether to stay in or exit the EU by the end of 2017, Cameron has confounded his ardent critics and delighted his passionate supporters. He has also delivered a high stakes wake-up call to the EU.

The immediate aftermath of the speech has yielded an uptick in Tory popularity. The rare tribe of Tory europhiles may have been displeased by Cameron's speech but the majority of the party feels otherwise. A large chunk of eurosceptic backbenchers that had begun to grow openly restless has been adroitly pacified for now. Across the political spectrum, the Tory promise has checked the growing surge in support for the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), a vociferous political party that courted the Tory core vote by campaigning on an anti-EU prospectus. It has also put the Labour party in a decidedly uncomfortable position. The Labour party remains instinctively pro-European but its leader Ed Miliband risks being seen as out of touch by denying voters the in-out referendum that they crave. The same holds for the Liberal Democrats.

Nonetheless, even if it could be said that the underlying purpose of David Cameron's decision to call a referendum is a Machiavellian political calculation to appease his own party, there are also compelling constitutional reasons that support such a move. Referendums are an important mechanism for securing democratic consent in the face of a sustained and intractable political conundrum of national importance. The thorny matter of Britain's relationship with Europe was always unlikely to be resolved by the rough and tumble of a general election alone.

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