Foreign Policy Blogs

Cameron Visits U.S. in High Wire Act on Europe, Syria

Cameron Visits U.S. in High Wire Act on Europe, Syria

Image Credit: Getty

The gesture itself was subtle, but as the collection of briefing notes were set to one side, so with it went a thin layer of pulped political barricade.  What remained were two government leaders seated across a table, a Russian president asking a British prime minister to state his case.  David Cameron traveled to Sochi — the Black Sea winter successor to last summer’s London Olympic Games — to meet with Vladimir Putin on the continued unhinging of Syria.  The two have been playing a game of their own on the subject for months, and when Cameron sensed a possible softening of Russia’s alliance with Assad, his flight to Washington for talks with President Obama was buoyed by the potential shift in attitude.

Cameron’s U.S. visit was something of a northeast whirlwind.  Over three days, he bounced between Washington, Boston and New York.  His first day included a joint press conference with Obama and a tour of FBI headquarters to discuss counterterrorism in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings in April.  The following day saw the prime minister view the bombing site and meet with first responders. Hours later, he swept down to New York to promote U.K. business and became a double act alongside Prince Harry, undertaking his own week-long American visit.

His press conference with Obama on that first day was largely overshadowed in the American press by questions on alleged IRS audits of Tea Party members and the handling of the Benghazi embassy terror attack, but Cameron kept his focus on the two featured tasks of his visit — moving the process of a U.S.-EU trade agreement along and expanding the scope of support for Syrian opposition groups, a campaign for which the U.K. has put itself out front.

Cameron’s push for the U.S.-EU agreement falls against a problematic domestic backdrop on the very subject of Europe.  In his absence, MPs — many from his own conservative party — set in motion plans to introduce a bill solidifying the prime minister’s pledge to hold a referendum on U.K. membership in the European Union by 2017.  Although this sounds like colleagues acting at the behest of Mr. Cameron, breezily following through on his proposed agenda, this appearance is deceiving.  The move is largely a negative commentary on the prime minister’s failure to announce the measure in last week’s Queen’s Speech — a prepared outline of the government’s legislative agenda presented at the opening of parliament by the sovereign.  The referendum’s omission from Her Majesty’s message drew accusations of backpedalling by Downing Street against the will of an increasingly eurosceptic public.

Cameron Visits U.S. in High Wire Act on Europe, Syria

Cameron tours Boston Bombing Site, Image Credit: The Independent (UK)

British pushback on Europe is nothing new.  Nor has it witnessed a sudden, emotionally charged spike in unpopularity.  Resentments over membership have simmered and swelled over time, predating the rash of discontents burrowing out of the euro crisis.  Firm refusals to give up the pound sterling in favor of the common currency and vocal objections to the growing influence of the continent on its island policymaking have peppered U.K.-EU relations for years.  When the Lisbon Treaty vote sought to amend the EU constitution back in 2007, talk of a public poll reached fever pitch.  Cameron, then the leader of the opposition party against Labour’s Gordon Brown, offered an ‘iron clad promise’ that a Conservative leadership would have given the treaty the democratic treatment.

In the end, it was a promise made of feathers.  Cameron conceded that the treaty’s creation of political posts (to include a president and prime minister) and its acceptance by the other members of the union meant a referendum would have had as little effect on its enforcement as a vote on the “rising of the sun.”  In December 2011, however, a year and a half into his premiership, Cameron did make the bold move of vetoing hasty treaty amendments with designs on resuscitating the eurozone.  It was a decision met with fury by European partners.

The EU referendum bill is being introduced by Conservative MP James Wharton, a job afforded to him by way of his selection in the “Private Members” poll.  Each year, 20 MPs are given the opportunity to offer up a piece of legislation entirely of their choosing.  Debate on these bills is limited and thusly left vulnerable to the adult legislative version of adolescent class clowning: the filibuster.  If a member of parliament wants to kill a private member’s initiative, all he or she must do is chatter on until they’ve run the clock down.  The consequence of this framework is a significant lack of controversial subject matter in these introductions.

Cameron may be bruised by the appearance of internal revolt, but any outcome on the vote may still work in his favor.  If the bill passes, it could slow the momentum of the emerging, eurosceptic U.K. Independence Party (UKIP).  If it fails, members of Labour and the Liberal Democrats — with which Cameron has built a coalition government after failing to win a decisive majority in the 2010 election — will look as though they are denying the British people their say.

The proposed 2017 date is a similarly cunning move.  General elections must be called within five years of each other, situating Cameron’s re-election two years before the vote.  The message?  Vote the Tories out of office and the Europe vote may get hit by Number 10’s heavy black door on the way out, too.  The delay serves another purpose, one that lends itself to understanding the stall in his formal presentation of the measure: Cameron is buying time.

Cameron Visits U.S. in High Wire Act on Europe, Syria

Image Credit: Washington Post

The timeline gives the prime minister room to build his argument for the value of Britain’s stake in Europe.  He needs to do so in a way that highlights more than just the economic fallout of withdrawal.  The U.K. could still survive without EU membership, but the scale of the negative impact will need to be more convincing if europhiles wish to get around personal sentiments of sovereignty and frustration over the shuttling of taxpayer funds to Brussels and weak states lacking in effective oversights.  Cameron wants to press the EU for change and a louder U.K. voice in its affairs, and looking like a facilitator of a massive transatlantic free trade agreement is quite a start. U.S. and EU trade already stands at over $600 billion a year, and a removal of tariffs could boost GDP by 0.5 percent in both economies.  That’s a great deal of cash floating across the Atlantic.

From the perspective of the Obama administration, a strong EU and a strong U.K. go hand-in-hand.  In talking to the press, the president backed Cameron’s desire to see the wounds of Britain’s relationship with Europe sutured to see if they can heal before the two jump to an acrimonious parting of ways.  The London EU] bridge remains Washington’s easiest access point to the continent.

One wonders if the announcement of a vote date and public displays of economic leadership aren’t just meant to ask the EU nicely to get its way.  Instead, it forces the Union’s hand.  If EU leaders don’t want to risk the loss of an influential donor state, it will have to give London some of the room it craves and it needs to do so well before the close of the decade.

In little more than a month, Cameron will host the G8 summit in London.  This travel blitz was intended to bring his humanitarian and global economy-driven agenda more sharply into focus.  What also comes into frame is just how thin the line is that he’s balancing on in order to do it.



Sara Chupein-Soroka

Sara Chupein-Soroka is a former Program Associate at the Foreign Policy Association. She holds an M.S. in Global Affairs from New York University with a focus on U.S.-European relations, and a B.A. in Political Science from Hunter College. Her graduate thesis examined U.S.-UK bilateral security relations (an ongoing project) and she undertook an in-field intensive at The Hague, Bosnia and Serbia examining transitional justice in the former Yugoslavia in 2011.