British Prime Minister David Cameron has indicated that Britons will be asked to consider the country’s relationship with the EU – possibly in a referendum – but not before the next general election, due in May 2015. The way forward for Britain is "less Europe, not more Europe", he said.
Simultaneously, the main opposition Labour party indicated that it too is likely to pledge a referendum after the election in an upcoming manifesto.
Speaking during an official visit to Brazil on Friday (28 September), the prime minister also announced that Britain would opt out of a series of EU law and order policies later this year.
“The fact is Europe is changing – and changing rapidly. The eurozone of 17 countries with one currency, I believe that one day they are going to move towards one economic policy. We are not going to be part of that and I think that will provide over time opportunities for a new settlement between Britain and Europe,” Cameron told reporters.
'Less Europe, not more Europe'
He added: “I don't think it is in Britain's interests to leave the EU, but I do think what it is increasingly becoming the time for is a new settlement between Britain and Europe, and I think that new settlement will require fresh consent. In the next parliament, I think there will be opportunities for a fresh settlement and for new consent to that settlement.”
"We should use that opportunity to reshape Britain’s membership of the EU in ways that advance our national interest in free trade, open markets and co-operation. I think that means less Europe not more Europe; less cost, less bureaucracy and less regulation.”
In a sign of a more immediate hardline approach, he said Britain would exercise its rights to stand apart from a series of justice and home affairs measures later this year.
Cameron faces intense political pressure from the UK Independence party (UKIP) – led by MEP Nigel Farage – whose party is polling well and has long campaigned for a referendum on the UK’s EU membership.
UKIP appeals to Conservative party strongholds, and is anticipating gains in the 2014 European Parliament election. Cameron will be hoping that a pledge to consult the nation after the election will neutralise his Eurosceptic critics in the Tory party and keep them in the fold.
Farage wants clear “in/out” referendum pledge
Farage has dismissed suggestions that UKIP could be tempted to back the Conservatives at the next election unless a referendum pledge was “written in blood”, and cast doubt on whether Cameron intended to ask the question of whether Britain should leave the EU in such a referendum – as opposed to accepting a new relationship limited to the single market.
UKIP wants a referendum to put a clear “in/out” choice to the electorate in relation to EU membership.
Cameron’s announcement came as Jon Cruddas, an influential Labour MP, made similar noises in an interview withThe Daily Telegraph (29 September).
“At some stage there is going to have to be some resolution of what our relationship (with the EU) is here and what format that takes. It could be a referendum,” Cruddas said.
Labour and Tories seek to put Europe issue on ice
On the timing, Cruddas also hinted at delayed referendum pledge, saying: “We have said the time is not right as regards a referendum on Europe given the economics ricocheting around the eurozone. Obviously our position needs to be developed over the next period.”
If both main parties pledge deferred referendums, the issue could be neutralised from political debate until 2015, which would suit both leading parties, which view the Europe issue as a political toxin capable of splitting their parties.
It will also enable UK politicians to await the outcome of forthcoming discussions on banking and fiscal union within the eurozone, before deciding how to negotiate a new settlement.
John Major, the former Conservative prime minister, recently told the BBC that the forthcoming negotiations on potential treaty change and fiscal union would provide Britain with a chance to recast relations with the EU.
He said this could bring an end to what he called the long-running sore of Britain's fraught relations with the EU.
Current polls suggest that the UK political landscape remains finely balanced and parties may have to contract for another coalition following the 2015 election. The Liberal Democrats – the Conservatives’ partners in the coalition government – remain the most pro-European party, and are likely to resist calls for a referendum.
- Autumn 2012: Prime Minister David Cameron to announce repatriation of criminal reciprocal relationships with EU, to clarify timing of referendum. Labour party to publish manifesto, also expected to pledge referendum on Europe.
- By 2014: UK to conduct a full "audit" of Britain's relationship with the EU.