- - Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Terrorist attacks here and abroad have turned America’s presidential candidates to national security, but real foreign-policy debate has barely begun. Europe, home to our most important political-military and economic allies, is critically important for our own future. And 2016 could bring the most serious threat to the European Union in its entire history.

British Prime Minister David Cameron has pledged a referendum on whether the United Kingdom should exit the EU if he fails to obtain a significant shift in sovereign power back to London, away from EU headquarters. Mr. Cameron aims to complete negotiations with other EU members by February, and hold the United Kingdom’s “in-or-out” referendum in June. The implications for the United States are enormous.

With two more Republican debates looming before the Iowa caucuses, it is time to hear the presidential candidates’ views on Europe. The EU has long been less than the sum of its parts, reducing not only its member nations’ global influence, but also weakening NATO and, therefore, America’s global efforts against terrorism and nuclear proliferation. Overall, the EU is not bearing its fair share, and it provides cover for too many complacent free-riders.

What Washington needs from Europe is strong nation-states capable of meeting their roles in maintaining international peace and security, and an open international economic order. What we get from Europe in no way resembles this picture. (To be fair, President Obama has done everything possible to recede from America’s responsibilities, but our own 2016 election can reverse this failed neo-isolationism.) The United Kingdom’s referendum could bring about a fundamentally new relationship among EU members, enhancing the role of the nation-states, and thereby strengthening the West as a whole.

Whether or not Mr. Cameron is able to meet his ambitious schedule, let alone reach his declared objectives, his gamble is fraught with peril for all involved. The central EU institutions could be gravely weakened if Mr. Cameron does, in fact, repatriate substantial powers to London: What Britain gets, many other EU members will undoubtedly also insist upon.

Alternatively, if Mr. Cameron’s diplomacy does not produce the results he has all but promised, United Kingdom voters could well decide to leave the EU (known as “Brexit” in EU circles). To what extent, if at all, Britain would suffer from withdrawal will be the centerpiece of the impending debate in the United Kingdom. For the EU itself, however, Brexit would have extremely serious consequences, losing its second-biggest economy after Germany and risking the possibility of other dominoes also falling.

Buffeted severely by the 2008 financial crisis and the massive, unresolved travails of the euro, the common currency of most members, the EU’s economic potency is already suffering. Even worse, 2015’s still-swelling refugee crisis, emanating from Syria’s civil war and general Middle Eastern chaos, has set EU governments at each others’ throats politically, inspiring populist movements across the continent and bolstering existing parties like Marine le Pen’s Front National in France. A British decision to leave the EU could be the coup de grace to the EU as we now know it.

Since the 1957 Treaty of Rome, EU institutions and their unelected bureaucrats, have grown steadily in power. Many of the EU’s earliest advocates always sought full Western European political integration, with the “Common Market” merely a way station toward “ever closer union,” meaning, ultimately, a superstate. Others, however, especially in Britain, never really aspired to much more than removing artificial barriers to trade and economic growth.

Most Brits, like most Americans, hold to the old-fashioned notion that representative governments should make their decisions through elected officials, not have decisions imposed on them by diplomats and international bureaucrats. Yet, increasingly in the EU, that is exactly what happens, as national parliaments across the Union simply rubber-stamp regulations and “laws” that have been hammered out behind closed doors at EU headquarters in Brussels.

Parliament, elected by actual United Kingdom citizens, risks becoming increasingly marginalized, as Britons increasingly realize. That is why the stakes are so high over Mr. Cameron’s pledge to achieve a substantial realignment in the Brussels-London relationship. Whether he can get anything like the tectonic shifts he has implied (and perhaps overpromised); whether he ever had any serious interest in fundamental change; or even whether he sought more than cosmetic changes, is completely unclear, based on the negotiating record so far. If, however, Mr. Cameron does not deliver, the Conservative Party could split wide open, compounding the radical left’s recent hijacking of the Labor Party.

These are major problems for Washington, whatever British voters ultimately decide about staying in or leaving the EU. And the EU’s fate has obvious implications far more broadly, such as dealing with Vladimir Putin’s resurgent Russia, China, and global terrorism and proliferation. Serious candidates will have serious views on these issues, and the voters need to hear them.

John R. Bolton, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

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