UK Prime Minister David Cameron promised today (23 January) to offer Britons a simple ‘in/out’ referendum choice on whether to stay in the European Union if he wins the next election, scheduled for 2015. EurActiv brings you the highlights and the main reactions.
In his speech, given in London, Cameron said the Conservative party would campaign in the 2015 election with a pledge to renegotiate Britain's EU membership and then put the resulting deal to a referendum, possibly in 2017.
“It will be an in-out referendum," Cameron explained, saying that he would seek repatriation of several EU laws, and enshrine those in a new treaty to be negotiated with Britain's EU partners.
The referendum will depend on Cameron winning the next election at a time when the Conservative leader is currently trailing the opposition Labour party in opinion polls, and governing through a fractious coalition with the pro-European Liberal Democrats.
Cameron said he supported Britain remaining in a looser EU, centred around the single market for goods and services, which British companies want to safeguard.
Eurozone debt crisis as an opportunity
Cameron said efforts to forge closer integration among eurozone countries, prompted by the debt crisis, gives Britain a window of opportunity to renegotiate its terms with the EU in a new treaty.
"The European Union that emerges from the eurozone crisis is going to be a very different body. It will be transformed perhaps beyond recognition by the measures needed to save the eurozone," he said.
“Those of us outside the euro recognise that those in it are likely to need to make some big institutional changes,” said Cameron, adding: “By the same token, the members of the eurozone should accept that we, and indeed all member states, will have changes that we need to safeguard our interests and strengthen democratic legitimacy.”
"Those who want to go further, faster," should be free to do so, Cameron stressed, "without being held back by the others" like Britain.
Putting the pressure on his European counterparts, he added that Britain's future in Europe - in or out - would depend on the results of a renegotiation of the UK’s position in the EU.
This will be a tall order for Britain, which is not alone in setting the EU's agenda. And there is little appetite among other EU countries to offer Cameron retrospective cherry-picking of existing rules.
"He can control neither the timing nor the outcome of the negotiations and in so doing is raising false expectations that can never be met," said Guy Verhofstadt, leader of the liberal ALDE group in the European Parliament. "Cameron is playing with fire."
Cameron acknowledged that he was taking a gamble, saying: "My strong preference is to enact these changes for the entire EU, not just for Britain." But he also added: "If there is no appetite for a new treaty for us all, then of course Britain should be ready to address the changes we need in a negotiation with our European partners."
Cameron would campaign to stay in EU, if conditions met
The UK Conservative leader dismissed suggestions that an in/out referendum on Europe threatened to create business uncertainty, ignoring US warnings over Britain's role in the European Union.
Cameron brushed aside those critics, saying "the question mark" about Britain's position in Europe "is already there and ignoring it won’t make it go away."
"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.
He said resentment at the democratic deficit was angering the UK public, where “democratic consent for the EU in Britain is now wafer thin”. Further delaying a referendum, he warned, “is a path to ensuring that when the question is finally put – and at some stage it will have to be – it is much more likely that the British people will reject the EU.”
When the referendum comes, Cameron said he would campaign for it “with all my heart and soul if we can negotiate such an arrangement”.
“I believe something very deeply. That Britain’s national interest is best served in a flexible, adaptable and open European Union and that such a European Union is best with Britain in it,” he said, calling on his European partners to accommodate his proposals.
A new EU must be built upon five principles, Cameron said: competitiveness, flexibility, power flowing back to - not just away from - member states, democratic accountability and fairness.
-- ACROSS EUROPE --
In Europe, Cameron's speech met with a lukewarm response.
French foreign minister Laurent Fabius quipped that France stood ready to "roll out the red carpet" for British companies wanting to leave Britain. Even the UK's traditional allies like Sweden, and Denmark, which are not members of the eurozone distanced themselves from Cameron's position on Europe, saying they did not share the same objectives.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel was a lone voice in defending the UK's position, saying: "Germany, and I personally, want Britain to be an important part and an active member of the European Union.”
According to Poland's Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski, Poland is likely to take Britain's place in the EU. “The perspective of a decade where Poland will join the group of “co-deciders”, which the UK has just abandoned, is feasible."
-- IN BRITAIN --
Lord Mandelson, the former EU commissioner and Labour MP, was dismissive of Cameron's promises. "On the other hand, he's saying that Britain's membership of Europe is a sort-of blank sheet of paper, which has to be completely renegotiated, and if Britain doesn't get what it wants then we're leaving and heading out through the exit door,” said
"I don't think that is an approach that is going to find a very positive response from our partners in Europe... They do not regard the European Union as a sort-of cafeteria service, in which you bring your own tray and then leave with what you want," said Mandelson.
Business for New Europe (BNE), a coalition of pro-European British business leaders, said it welcomed the Prime Ministers suggestions to reform of the European Union and "opening the debate on how it can be made more competitive."
But it warned that Cameron had also "also introduced considerable uncertainty into the UK economy by placing a question mark over Britain’s EU membership."
“The overall vision is good," said BNE Chairman Roland Rudd. “However, to call for a new treaty for these changes, on the premise that other member states want treaty change is risky, because it is far from clear there is any appetite for this from others."
"The uncertainty caused by an in/out referendum with a date set for end of negotiations could be hugely damaging to Britain's economy, as foreign companies may postpone or divert investment.”
GMB, a British trade union, warned that it would refuse to sign up to a new British settlement on Europe that translates in fewer rights for workers.
“Millions of UK workers bought into the EU ideal on the balance of a free business market for jobs that had a social dimension for equality, employment rights, health and safety protections, access to justice and for the free movement not the exploitation of labour," said Paul Kenny, GMB General Secretary.
"Let Cameron, the Tories and business be warned that if they succeed in getting a deal to take away these social benefits that workers will not vote in the referendum to stay in the EU," GMB said in a statement.
Open Europe, a Eurosceptic think-tank close to the Conservative Party, hailed Cameron's speech saying opinion polls have "consistently shown that the British electorate want a better, looser relationship with the EU."
However, it also acknowledged that other European countries might not want to sign up to the "strict timetable" that Cameron has imposed, as the UK's "new settlement" with Europe should be negotiated in time for the UK general election in 2015.
Mats Persson, Open Europe Director, asked: "If he doesn't get concessions, is he willing to recommend ‘Out’ in a referendum in 2017?”
-- IN THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT --
Martin Schulz, the President of the European Parliament, said: "This was an inward looking speech that does not reflect European reality and will not impress many of the UK's European partners. The speech was more about domestic politics reflecting concerns of Eurosceptic elements of the Conservative Party,” said Schulz, a German MEP.
“I suspect that Prime Minister Cameron with his referendum announcement is playing a dangerous game for tactical, domestic reasons. I believe him when he says that he wants the UK to remain a member of the EU. But Prime Minister Cameron increasingly resembles the sorcerer’s apprentice, who cannot tame the forces that he has conjured – forces that want to leave the EU for ideological reasons, to the detriment of the British people,” concluded Schulz.
Martin Callanan, a senior British MEP who chairs the European Conservatives and Reformists group (ECR), said Cameron has set out a "positive" agenda for "a more flexible and outward-looking EU".
"The euro crisis has brought an end to the notion of business as usual in the EU where the only direction of travel is 'ever-closer union'. The UK has many allies across Europe who want to see the EU become a more competitive and flexible organisation that respects the diversity of the Continent," Callanan said in a statement.
"The British people should have their opportunity to finally have their say," Callanan continued adding: "The EU needs to start trusting the people, otherwise the people will not trust the EU."
Guy Verhofstadt, leader of the liberal ALDE group in the European Parliament, warned Cameron was "playing with fire" on European issues by promising an in or out referendum to the British people on the "new settlement" that he promises.
"He can control neither the timing nor the outcome of the negotiations and in so doing is raising false expectations that can never be met."
Verhofstadt also pointed to "inconsistencies" in Cameron's speech, saying he "claims to want a common set of rules for the Single market at the same time as wanting exceptions for Britain."
On opt-outs, Verhofstadt sent a clear warning: "There can be no question of individual renegotiation or opt out by a single Member State from agreed policies. To do so, would precipitate the unravelling of the Internal Market as other countries seek their own concessions in return. Cameron will not succeed if he attempts to hold his European partners to ransom."
"The one positive effect of today's speech is the genuine debate that is finally taking place about the EU and Britain's place in it," Verhofstadt concluded.
EurActiv Poland reports that Janusz Wojciechowski from the European Reformist and Conservatives group believes that the announced referendum is "a gesture of protest against the increasingly strong domination of Germany in the EU."
"If Germany and France want to keep Britain in the EU, they will have to stop their aspirations of domination. I think, therefore, that London's attitude will create a good outcome for the EU."
President of the group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats Hannes Swoboda told EurActiv:
"The tragicomic speech delivered by David Cameron yesterday fell far below any expectations, right or left, British or continental. He should have spent less time scouting locations for his speech and more time looking at the ways EU membership benefits the UK."
Morten Messerschmidt, a Danish MEP from the eurosceptic Europe of freedom and democracy Group said that he thinks Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt should fly to London, embrace Cameron and help him with the negotiations.
- 27-28 June 2013: EU summit to adopt roadmap for new treaty to deepen economic and political integration in the eurozone.
- May 2014: European elections
- May 2015: UK election