Given the issue's sensitivity, Cameron has sought to please everyone. He said there would be a referendum, but it would entail the United Kingdom's position in the European Union, not British membership. Despite his criticisms of the bloc, Cameron has said he does not want to leave the European Union outright; rather, he wants to repatriate from Brussels as many powers as possible. Cameron believes the United Kingdom still needs direct access to Europe's common market but that London should regain power regarding such issues as employment legislation and social and judicial affairs. Most important, the referendum would take place after the general elections of 2015.
London's Costs of Membership
London also believes that the United Kingdom has surrendered too much of its national sovereignty to supranational EU institutions. The United Kingdom is a net contributor to the European Union, and London feels that the costs of membership exceed the benefits. The Common Agricultural Policy, which subsidizes agricultural sectors in continental Europe, does not really benefit the United Kingdom, and the Common Fisheries Policy has forced the United Kingdom to share its fishing waters with other EU member states.
Yet the United Kingdom is a strong defender of the single market. Roughly half of its exports end up in the European Union, and half of its imports come from the European Union. While the United States is the United Kingdom's single most important export destination, four of its five top export destinations are eurozone countries: Germany, the Netherlands, France and Ireland. Germany is also the source of about 12.6 percent of all British imports.
Some critics suggest that the United Kingdom could leave the European Union but remain a part of the European Economic Area, the trade agreement that includes non-EU members, such as Iceland and Norway. However, the country would still be required to make financial contributions to continental Europe and adapt its legal order to EU standards, but it would not have a vote in EU decisions. According to Cameron, the United Kingdom must be part of the common market and have a say in policymaking.
The issue points to the United Kingdom's grand strategy. Despite an alliance with the United States, the United Kingdom is essentially a European power, and it cannot afford to be excluded from Continental affairs. Throughout history, London's foremost concern has been the emergence of a single European power that could threaten the British Isles politically, economically or militarily. Maintaining the balance of power in the Continent -- especially one in which London has some degree of influence -- is a strategic imperative for the United Kingdom.
The United Kingdom's Strategic Dilemma
The United Kingdom's push to renegotiate its status in the European Union threatens the European project. In the past, the bloc granted special concessions to the British, such as allowing them to keep the pound sterling during Maastricht Treaty negotiations. These concessions inspired other EU members to ask for similar treatment -- most notably Denmark, which also managed to opt out of the euro.
However, this is the first time that London has openly demanded the return to a previous stage in the process of European integration. At no other time has a country tried to dissociate itself from the bloc in this way. The decision not only challenges the Franco-German view of the European Union but also makes a compromise extremely difficult and risky between France and Germany and the United Kingdom.
Most important, Cameron is framing his proposals not in terms of national sovereignty but in terms of social well-being. In doing so, he acknowledges the social implications of the European crisis. Cameron has even said that the European Union currently is hurting its citizens more than it is helping them. According to leaked portions of his upcoming speech, he believes that there is a "growing frustration that the EU is seen as something that is done to people rather than acting on their behalf" and that the issues are "being intensified by the very solutions required to resolve the economic problems."