'Brexit' stage right

Last week, I had the pleasure of meeting with a Dutch conservative member of the European Parliament, who painted a picture of the EU that is alarming — of rejection of the foundations that made the West great and of apologies for, rather than action plans against, the extremism that threatens us daily. In the context of last week's U.K. elections, this insider view makes the case even stronger that the U.K. should reconsider its current relationship to the European Union; what some have termed the possible Brussels exit or "Brexit." The future of the U.K. matters well beyond its borders, and has consequences for the U.S. and the globe.

Now that the initial elation of British Prime Minister David Cameron and the Tories' consequential victory is wearing off, the turbulence of governing with a knife-edge majority is coming into focus. Two of the largest-looming challenges include popular support, or lack thereof, for the future of Britain in the EU; and Scotland within Britain. Leaving aside for now the Scottish independence issue, let's consider the question of the U.K.’s relationship to Europe.

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Support is divided on the issue of the U.K.'s role and position with respect to the EU. The business community seems committed to stay in. Indeed, the Confederation of British Industries (CBI) states: "[Eight] out of 10 CBI members [said] they would vote to remain in the EU if a referendum were held tomorrow."

For his part, Cameron wants the U.K. to stay in the European Union, but with significant reforms involving immigration and welfare benefits for noncitizens. His Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, has said on the topic: "It is the status quo which condemns the people of Europe to an ongoing economic crisis and continuing decline. And so there is a simple choice for Europe: reform or decline."

And, while it only won one parliamentary seat, the U.K. Independence Party, which advocates full withdrawal from Europe, accumulated 3.9 million votes — not an insignificant result.

With such division on the issue, in the course of his campaign Cameron promised to guage popular mood via a referendum before 2017, though he is being pressured to stage it even sooner by many who say the economy will be more stable once a way forward is mapped out.

And if the U.K.'s role is to be renegotiated, as The Guardian tells us, this will be no easy task:

"Cameron knows that he will face a difficult battle in the four key areas where he will seek to renegotiate Britain’s membership terms. These aim to:

  • Give Britain an opt-out from the historic EU ambition to forge an 'ever closer union' of the peoples of Europe.
  • Create safeguards to ensure that changes in the single market cannot be imposed on non-eurozone members by the eurozone. 
  • Tighten access to in-work and out-of-work benefits for EU migrants. 
  • Hand greater powers to national parliaments to block EU legislation."

However, it would be impossible and inadvisable to ignore British vexation over sovereignty being ceded to unelected Brussels bureaucrats. None other than the great Baroness Margaret Thatcher put these concerns forward when she was prime minister, and they are as relevant and widely expressed today. Moreover, in addition to motivations for restoring the supremacy of U.K. Parliament over the EU's, many in Britain seek reform to programs that give immigrants generous welfare benefits. On this point, Cameron has a robust plan that includes requiring immigrants to have paid into the system for minimum four years before claiming benefits, and preventing new immigrants from claiming unemployment while job hunting.

Americans reading this well may ask: Why does this matter to us? The simple answer is that the U.S.-U.K. special relationship is critical to a strong, stable world in terms of defense, economics and trade. Global geopolitics ultimately benefit when the U.S., U.K. and other English-speaking nations lead and prosper, mainly due to their shared values of rule of law, free-market capitalism, industrious work ethic and dedication to human rights.

Whether one is pro- or anti- Europe, providing a forum for the British people to speak is critical, albeit likely anathema to the bureaucrats within the EU who are less enamored of the democratic process than the British themselves. In the U.S., we cherish and protect — sometimes to the death — freedom of speech, a value instilled in us by none other than our British antecedents.

Cohen is head of the New York office of Off the Record Strategies and New York director of the Anglosphere Society. He formerly advised the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee on Western European affairs and was the founding executive director of the House United Kingdom Caucus.