BRUSSELS — The French are engaged in a lonely military adventure in Africa. The Germans are preoccupied with domestic elections rather than regional affairs. Unemployment in some countries is at a historic high and economies across Europe are still mired in recession.
Now Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain has added to Europe’s malaise, vowing to reduce British entanglement with the European Union, or allow his people to vote in a referendum to leave the bloc altogether.
The pledge prompted swift retorts from France and Germany, which said no member had the option of “cherry picking” whatever European rules it wants to enforce. But it reflected a growing sense of unease across the Continent, that while the acute phase of the financial crisis has passed, the challenge to Europe’s mission and even its membership has not.
Even the United States has injected itself into the matter, with an unusually public insistence that Britain, a close ally, stay in the union, fearing that its departure would heighten centrifugal forces that would weaken Europe as a diplomatic, military, and financial partner.
With the threat of a sudden breakup of the eurozone appearing to recede in recent months, Europe has seen a resurgence of narrow national interests that risks swamping always elusive common goals. The bickering is undercutting hopes in some circles that the struggle to save the euro had laid the groundwork for “more Europe.”
“As pressure from the financial markets recedes and a sense of urgency lifts, the appetite for serious reform is melting away like butter in the sun,” said Thomas Klau, head of the Paris office of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “Now that markets no longer hold a knife under leaders’ throats, they are slipping back into their normal mode, which is to manage their own immediate reality.”
For Cameron, with elections coming in 2015, that means heading off a challenge from the hard-right, anti- Europe UK Independence Party, while shoring up support for his government, which recently admitted that its unpopular austerity program would have to be extended to 2018, analysts said.
He is also eager to avoid the sort of ruinous intraparty split over Europe that bedeviled the prime ministerships of two of his Conservative predecessors, Margaret Thatcher and John Major.
That comes against a backdrop of declining public support for British membership in Europe — only 45 percent last year, down from 51 percent in 2011, in polls conducted by the Pew Research Global Attitudes Project.
Cameron’s speech Wednesday in London calling for a referendum had been in the works for some time but, noted Klau, was delivered at a moment when the European Union had begun to declare victory over doomsayers who predicted the common currency and even the whole union could crumble.
This mood of calm, Klau said, has given leaders ‘‘the political space’’ to turn their eyes from Europe toward more pressing and, for politicians seeking reelection, far more important domestic concerns.