Prime Minister Cameron vows to give Britons a referendum choice on whether to stay in the EU or leave if he wins an election in 2015, sending shockwaves across the bloc countries. The leader of the main opposition party says the speech showed Cameron was being driven by his party, not by the national interest
British Prime Minister David Cameron announced on Jan. 23 that he would offer British citizens a vote on whether to leave the European Union by the end of 2017 if his party wins the next election, a move that has already triggered alarm among member states.
Cameron acknowledged that public disillusionment with the EU was “at an all-time high,” using a long-awaited speech in London to say that the terms of Britain’s membership in the bloc should be revised and the country’s citizens should have a say.
Cameron proposed that his Conservative Party renegotiate the U.K.’s relationship with the European Union if it wins the next general election, expected in 2015.
“Once that new settlement has been negotiated, we will give the British people a referendum with a very simple in or out choice to stay in the EU on these new terms. Or come out altogether,” Cameron said. “It will be an in-out referendum.”
But he cautioned against holding a vote immediately, saying it would be wrong to hold a referendum “before we have had a chance to put the relationship right” and before the eurozone emerges from crisis.
The timeline he laid out mostly hinges on a Conservative victory in the next general election. Still, Cameron said legislation would be drafted before 2015 so that if his party wins, it can be introduced and passed quickly enough to ensure a vote could be held “in the first half” of the next Parliament.
The stated possibility of a referendum has drawn immediate warnings from Britain’s main European partners.
“We can’t have Europe a la carte,” French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius insisted. “Imagine the EU was a football club: once you’ve joined up and you’re in this club, you can’t then say you want to play rugby.” German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said Berlin wants Britain to be an “active” EU member but that membership was an all-or-nothing proposition. “Cherry-picking is not an option.”
Even the U.S., which normally stays out of disputes among EU states, waded into the debate. The White House said last week that President Barack Obama had told Cameron in a phone call that “the United States values a strong U.K. in a strong European Union.”
The leader of the main opposition Labour party, Ed Miliband, said the speech showed Cameron was “a weak prime minister, being driven by his party, not by the national economic interest.” Deputy prime minister, the pro-EU leader of the Liberal Democrats, Nick Clegg, said Cameron’s pledge would undermine the fragile U.K. economic recovery.
It will also dismay some business leaders, who have warned that the referendum pledge risks creating uncertainty that will harm Britain’s economic prospects.
But Cameron stressed that his first priority was to renegotiate the EU treaty, not leaving the bloc.
“I say to our European partners, frustrated as some of them no doubt are by Britain’s attitude: work with us on this,” he said.
Cameron insisted that a “one size fits all” approach to the 27-nation EU was misguided. Britain has always had a fraught relationship with the bloc. It benefits from the single market, but is among 10 of the EU countries not to use the euro.
“Let us not be misled by the fallacy that a deep and workable single market requires everything to be harmonized, to hanker after some unattainable and infinitely level playing field,” he said. “Countries are different. They make different choices. We cannot harmonize everything.”
Even as he raised the specter of a referendum, Cameron reiterated his view that Britain should stay in the EU.
“I speak as British prime minister with a positive vision for the future of the European Union. A future in which Britain wants, and should want, to play a committed and active part,” Cameron said. “There is no doubt that we are more powerful in Washington, in Beijing, in Delhi because we are a powerful player in the European Union.”
But in order to stay, the bloc needs to change, Cameron said, as he laid out a vision of a “new” EU built on five principles: competitiveness; flexibility; power flowing back to, not just away from, member states; democratic accountability; and fairness.
The EU’s executive welcomed Cameron’s declared willingness that Britain remain in the European Union, albeit after renegotiating the terms of its membership.
Merkel says ready to discuss British ‘wishes’ on EU
“Europe also always means that you have to find fair compromises. In this context, we are of course ready also to talk about British wishes but one must keep in mind that other countries also have other wishes,” she told reporters.