Britain is strongly considering a break from the European Union. That move would potentially unravel its leadership role of a half century. And it would contribute to the further decline of what was once a top goal of American foreign policy — a unified Europe.
It would be an unwelcome retreat for Britain, and for Washington as well.
It is revealing that popular London Mayor Boris Johnson, the favorite to become the next leader of the Conservative Party, has broken with his friend and contemporary, Prime Minister David Cameron, to urge a “leave EU” vote in the June 23 referendum on continued British participation in the Union.
Mr. Cameron promised the referendum to satisfy his constituents and prevent them from joining the growing United Kingdom Independence Party. He apparently believed he could negotiate enough concessions from the other EU nations to secure a vote in favor of continued membership.
He won concessions to allow Britain to set tougher conditions for unemployment and other benefits in order to discourage immigration from poorer EU countries. But these gains have not satisfied anti-EU Britons, who fear that Europe is headed toward more centralization, not less.
Mayor Johnson, announcing his opposition to Prime Minister Cameron’s position, declared that a vote to leave would put Britain in a stronger bargaining position. “There is only one way to get the change we need, and that is to vote to go, because all EU history shows that they only really listen to a population when it says No,” he wrote.
That position is shrewdly calculated to appeal both to those who want nothing to do with the European Union and those who think Britain can strike a better deal that preserves major benefits of membership, such as free trade agreements. As such it strengthens Mr. Johnson’s chances of becoming not only the Conservative Party leader when Mr. Cameron steps down as promised, but the next prime minister.
There is nothing new in Britain’s ambivalence about the European Union. But the rise of anti-EU sentiment has been markedly steep in the past year, reflecting a view that Europe itself is in danger of coming apart over issues like the Ukraine, the euro and immigration from the Middle East.
The U.S. once had an active interest — and an active hand — in steering all Europeans, including Britons, toward greater cooperation and integration. But that focus on trans-Atlantic policy has dwindled in recent years as President Barack Obama first abandoned the “special relationship” that had been a central focus of American relations with Britain since World War II and then mostly stood by as Russia chipped away at the definition of Europe and as chaos enveloped the southern shores of the Mediterranean, leading to the current European immigration crisis.
Perhaps the idea was that Europe would act in its own interests.
But it is increasingly evident that Europe is still a continent of nations with divergent aims that lack the integrated power to fill the leadership vacuum created by American inaction.
We once lived in a world where European countries blindly pursued nationalistic goals, leading to two world wars that the U.S. ultimately could not avoid. That is why we backed the European integration project of the past 65 years.
Now European unity appears, like Humpty Dumpty, poised for a great fall.
It is not an encouraging development for peace and prosperity in Europe — and for positive cooperation across the global community.