Prime Minister David Cameron promised on Wednesday to give Britons a referendum choice on whether to stay in the European Union (EU) or leave if he wins an election in 2015, placing a question mark over Britain’s membership for years.
Cameron ended months of speculation by announcing in a speech the plan for a vote sometime between 2015 and the end of 2017, shrugging off warnings that this could imperil Britain’s economic prospects and alienate its biggest trading partner. He said public disillusionment with the EU was at “an all-time high”.
“It is time for the British people to have their say. It is time for us to settle this question about Britain and Europe,” Cameron said. His Conservative party will campaign for the 2015 election promising to renegotiate Britain’s EU membership.
“When we have negotiated that new settlement, we will give the British people a referendum with a very simple in or out choice to stay in the European Union on these new terms; or come out altogether. It will be an in-out referendum.”
The speech firmly ties Cameron to an issue that was the bane of a generation of Conservative leaders. In the past, he has avoided partisan fights over Europe, the undoing of the last two Conservative prime ministers, John Major and Margaret Thatcher. Britain would seek to claw back powers from Brussels, he said, a proposal that will be difficult to sell to other European countries. London will do an “audit” to determine which powers Brussels has that should be delegated to member states.
The response from EU partners was predictably frosty. French foreign minister Laurent Fabius quipped: “If Britain wants to leave Europe we will roll out the red carpet for you,” echoing Cameron himself, who once used the same words to invite rich Frenchmen alienated by high taxes to move to Britain.
German foreign minister Guido Westerwelle said his country wanted Britain to remain a full EU member, but London could not expect to pick and choose the aspects of membership it liked.
The speech also opens a rift with Cameron’s junior coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats. Their leader, deputy prime minister Nick Clegg, said the plan would undermine a fragile economic recovery. And even allies further afield are wary: the US has said it wants Britain to remain inside the EU with “a strong voice”. Whether Cameron will ever hold the referendum remains as uncertain as the Conservatives’ chances of winning the next election in 2015. They trail the opposition Labour party in opinion polls, and the coalition government is grappling with a stagnating economy.
Cameron said he would prefer Britain to remain inside the 27-nation EU. But he also made clear he believed the EU must be radically reformed. It was riskier to maintain the status quo than to change, he said.
It is nearly 40 years since British voters last had a say in a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European club. A 1975 vote saw just over 67% opt to stay inside. REUTERS