A future Labour government would only hold a referendum on Britain's membership of the European Union before 2020 if more powers were transferred to Brussels, party leader Ed Miliband will say today (12 March).
Prime Minister David Cameron has promised to try to reach a new settlement with the EU before holding an in/out referendum by the end of 2017, provided he wins the May 2015 election (see background).
But Miliband's calibrated referendum pledge means that if the opposition Labour wins power in 2015, or if it has to share power with the Liberal Democrats, there would be little prospect of a vote on Britain's EU membership this decade.
"I am announcing that the next Labour government will legislate for a new lock: there would be no transfer of powers from the UK to the EU without a referendum on our continued membership of the EU," Miliband wrote in Tuesday's Financial Times.
"There are no current proposals – from either the EU or any member state – for a further transfer of powers from Britain," he said. "It is unlikely there will be any such proposals in the next parliament."
By offering the prospect of a distant referendum, Miliband is trying to weaken Cameron's charge that Labour is afraid of giving British voters the chance to have their say on Europe, and also to underscore the risks of Cameron's strategy, which some investors fear could allow Britain to slip out of the EU.
Miliband, whose party currently leads in opinion polls, said Cameron's "arbitrary" timetable for an EU vote would distract from dealing with Britain's economic challenges, and that Cameron had no support in European capitals for his renegotiation.
Under pressure from eurosceptics in his Conservative party, and the anti-EU UK Independence Party, Cameron says that Britain can reshape its EU ties, though he has so far garnered only limited backing for his plans among fellow leaders.
In his op-ed, Miliband warned that the Conservatives' "damaging obsession" with Europe was spooking businesses, while Labour wanted to work for reform from within the 28-member bloc.
"Britain's future lies in the EU," Miliband stated.
Maidan as a symbol of EU attractiveness
Miliband used the waving of Europe's azure-and-golden-starred-flag by some Ukrainian protesters in Kyiv to argue that voters should not forget the European Union symbolised peace and prosperity after centuries of European strife.
But the 44-year-old Labour leader also cautioned that the EU's reputation was at a low ebb. Miliband said EU leaders should do more to build a better economy and address voter anxiety over immigration.
"If Britain's future in Europe is to be secured, Europe needs to work better for Britain," he wrote in the FT article. "Britain needs to work more effectively for change within the EU."
"Europe should also do more to address anxieties about immigration," Miliband said, adding that there was considerable voter concern that "the EU is intent on an inexorable drive to an ever closer union."
Opinion polls show about 40% of British voters want to stay in the EU while about the same proportion want to leave, though polls also show widespread hostility to immigration and dissatisfaction with established political parties.
Miliband said that a Labour government would find it considerably easier to achieve reform inside the EU without having to attempt to convince 27 other EU member states to rewrite a European treaty.
He said German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the EU's most powerful leader, had refused to support Cameron's plans for fundamental European reform during a visit to London last month.
Merkel, who has said that she wants Britain to stay in the EU, does favour some EU treaty change. But she sees treaty change as much more limited in scope than Cameron and as a way of deepening euro zone integration.
"She explained that he needs unanimous backing to get a new treaty. It is clear he has none," Miliband said.
A potential British exit from the European Union came to the top of the political agenda in January 2013, when Prime Minister David Cameron said that Britain must use the upheaval created by the eurozone crisis to forge a new relationship with the European Union.
Britain has negotiated a number of opt-outs from key EU policy areas since its accession in 1973. The country is not part of the eurozone and has not signed the free-border Schengen Treaty and does not want to abide by a number of EU police and judicial cooperation rules.
22-25 May 2014: European elections
18 Sept. 2014: Scottish independence referendum
May 2015: UK to hold general election
2017: EU membership referendum proposed by David Cameron