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David Cameron’s acknowledgement that he was not greeted with a “wall of love” at last week’s EU summit demonstrated a flair for languid British understatement. In reality, the prime minister’s long-anticipated demand for a renegotiation of Britain’s membership of the EU has been met with a mixture of anger and incomprehension.

The UK’s demands are doubtless inconvenient for the other EU leaders. But Mr Cameron is simply playing out the latest act in Britain’s ambivalent relationship with the rest of the European continent, a drama that has been going for centuries.

Britain’s debate about Europe echoes arguments that were taking place nearly 300 years ago when Sir Robert Walpole became the first prime minister. Robert Tombs, the Cambridge historian, notes that Walpole, a Whig, believed Britain should play a “major role in Europe”, while his Tory opponents preferred “overseas trade, not European commitments”.

As the leader of the modern Tories, Mr Cameron is the inheritor of his party’s traditional suspicion of European entanglements. Winston Churchill, the greatest of all Tory prime ministers, once told Charles de Gaulle that faced with a choice between Europe and “le grand large” (the open sea), Britain would always look beyond Europe.

Even Britain’s pro-Europeans have often taken a certain pride in steering clear of the worst upheavals on the European continent. Walpole boasted to the Queen in 1734: “Madam, there are 50,000 men slain in Europe this year, and not one Englishman.” Mr Cameron’s own audiences with the Queen have probably included similar sighs of relief over Britain’s ability to steer clear of the worst of the euro crisis.

The commitment to a referendum is Mr Cameron’s concession to political forces that believe, like 18th-century Tories, that Britain should look to the world beyond Europe. Global Britain, one of the organisations campaigning for Britain to leave the EU, argues: “Britain’s destiny ceased to be European centuries ago when English settlers began their transatlantic odyssey.”

Statements such as that make it easy to portray eurosceptics as backward-looking nostalgics. But there is also a forward-looking case to be made for Britain to take a global approach. The past few years of infighting and financial chaos have not been a compelling advertisement for the EU. The most dynamic economies in the world are in Asia and the most exciting technological developments are taking place in the US.

The real objection to the current case for Britain quitting the EU is simply that it poses a false choice between Europe and the rest of world. In reality, Britain has always attempted to be both a European and a global power.

Both Walpole and his foes turned out to be right. The Tories were correct to spot that Britain’s greatest commercial and political opportunities would lie outside Europe. The Whigs were right to believe it would be impossible to avoid European “entanglements”.

Next month Britain celebrates the 200th anniversary of victory in the ultimate European entanglement: the Battle of Waterloo. There is a eurosceptic version of Waterloo that portrays it as a British triumph over an ambitious European centraliser: Napoleon. The europhile version points out that Wellington commanded a multinational coalition and secured victory only after the late arrival on the battlefield of the Prussians.

The construction of winning coalitions in Europe has, so far, not been Mr Cameron’s forte. Last year, in a conference chamber a few miles from Waterloo, he went down to a heavy defeat in his effort to block the appointment of Jean-Claude Juncker as president of the European Commission. On this occasion British hopes for the Germans to come to the rescue were disappointed.

If Mr Cameron sustains further defeats in his efforts to cut a new deal with the EU, those who want Britain to leave Europe will be emboldened. They will argue that engagement with Europe need not entail membership of the EU. And they will add that if Britain wants to trade successfully with the rest of the world, it will do better if it frees itself from suffocating European regulation.

Both arguments sound plausible, but both are flawed. The fact is that every other large country in Europe, bar Russia, is now a member of the EU. If Britain leaves, it will have to adapt to EU policies that it will have no hand in formulating. The price of continuing unfettered access to the EU’s single market is likely to be acceptance of the very regulations Britain’s anti-Europeans dream of escaping. Finally, the idea that EU regulation prevents Britain from competing in global markets is a myth. Germany exports five times more to China than Britain — despite the alleged handicap of EU membership. The real challenge of Mr Cameron’s renegotiation is one that Tory anti-Europeans barely mention: maintaining British influence within the EU while staying outside the European single currency.

Mr Cameron certainly knows that. His challenge is to retain control of the modern Tory party while maintaining a Walpole-like determination to maintain British engagement with Europe.

gideon.rachman@ft.com

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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