David Cameron's rather arrogant stance on European Union membership reminds me of a famous 1930 Daily Mirror headline: "Fog in Channel Continent Cut Off."
The British Prime Minister is gambling that the EU needs Britain as much or more than Britain needs the EU, and that the trembling gnomes in Berlin, Brussels, Paris and Rome will move with alacrity to give Britain the right to overhaul its relationship with the EU for fear of letting Her Majesty's realm lapse back into splendid isolation.
Blackmail, in other words. Mr. Cameron is saying: Give us what we want, or we may bolt. The final decision would depend on the outcome of the referendum he promises to hold in first half of the next Parliament, assuming he wins the 2015 election. Britons would have their say in a simple "in-out" vote.
The referendum call, made Wednesday, just may work. Britain will probably win some concessions. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Europe's most powerful politician in its most powerful country, has signalled she will avoid an our-way-or-the-highway stance. "We are naturally willing to discuss the British wishes … We have to find a compromise," she said.
So the horse trading, the great gnashing of teeth, the threats, the claims and counter-claims that will define Britain's role in the EU, and thus the EU itself, have begun. And it will go on for four hideously boring years. Why bother with this great expenditure of time and money when it doesn't really matter whether Britain is inside or outside the tent?
I agree with the Financial Times's Wolfgang Munchau, who has noted that Britain headed for the exit 20 years ago, when then-prime minister John Major negotiated the opt-out from the euro. His successor, Tony Blair, confirmed that opt-out. Britain has made it clear that it will never become part of the euro zone, the economic heart of the EU. Among the EU's biggest economies, it is the only one with its own currency.
Britain has long conducted a low-level battle with the EU to earn more opt-outs. It is not part of the German-inspired fiscal compact that will monitor national budgets and punish countries that exceed budget-deficit limits. It does not have to participate in the bailouts of dud euro-zone economies. It will not impose the financial-transactions tax that was agreed to this week by 11 of the 17 euro-zone countries. It is not part of EU legislation governing freedom, security and justice.
Britain is endlessly trying to claw back powers entrusted to the EU and the effort has had its successes. If the EU were Canada, Britain would be Quebec.
If Britain were to leave the EU, it is impossible to imagine that, out of spite, other members would deny it free-trade access to the union. Norway and Switzerland, two thriving economies, are not EU members but enjoy access to the EU through their membership in the European Free Trade Association. The downside is that EFTA members have to adopt the legislation related to the single market without having a say in that legislation. But that's a small price to pay for unfettered access to the world's biggest single market.
Would "Brexit," as Britain's potential departure is inelegantly called, jeopardize London's role as the world's leading international financial centre? Bank of France Governor Christian Noyer has said the euro zone would not tolerate London's control of euro-related securities forever. But he said that in December, before Mr. Cameron put the referendum on the table. Presumably, Britain's exodus from the EU would encourage Mr. Noyer to double up his anti-London rhetoric.
Any notion that London would be finished as a financial centre if Britain were to leave the EU is fantasy. As the Financial Times pointed out, London was the biggest centre for currency trading, including the deutschemark, before the euro was invented. Try as they have to compete with London since the euro's launch, Frankfurt and Paris are non-entities in foreign exchange. British, Swiss and U.S. banks dominate that market, and do so from London.
London has every asset to keep its status intact as the top financial centre – the right language, right time zone, low taxes, superb infrastructure, ample liquidity. None of those would disappear if Britain were to walk to edge of the EU and wave goodbye.
Since Wednesday, British and European papers have been full of stories that have predicted doom for Britain if it leaves the EU – or that it would be the country's salvation. The polar views balance one another off: The net effect of a British exodus would be broadly neutral for the country, and hardly damaging to the rest of the EU. The core EU – the euro zone – has better things to worry about, such as saving the euro from extinction.
Either way, neither side would win big or lose big if Britain leaves the EU. This is much ado about nothing.