Prime Minister David Cameron angered Eurosceptics on Sunday (10 January), saying for the first time in an interview that quitting the European Union was “not the right answer” to Britain’s problems.
Cameron told BBC’s Andrew Marr Show he was “close” to agreeing deals to reform the union, and was open to alternative solutions to the sticky issue of welfare payments to migrants from the EU, which he wants to tighten.
Assuming agreements are reached, Cameron will campaign to stay in the union, saying “I don’t think that [leaving] is the right answer.”
“My policy is to hold a renegotiation and then a referendum —that’s what we promised in the manifesto ? and then to abide by what the British public say,” Cameron told Andrew Marr.
“Now, I hope that answer will be ‘stay in a reformed Europe’,” he said.
But he ruled out resigning if the answer was ‘No’.
“The question on the ballot paper is clear, it’s ‘stay in or go’, it’s not this politician’s future or that politician’s future. I think that’s very important because otherwise we won’t get perhaps the clear answer that we need.”
The prime minister said his proposal of a four-year ban for migrants for top-up benefits for low-paid work was “still on the table” but he could agree to an “equally powerful” plan to tackle so-called benefit tourism.
“We have a welfare system, unlike many in Europe, that you have immediate access to and it is that that creates many of the difficulties,” he explained.
The British premier said he was optimistic of securing a deal at an EU summit in February, and that an in/out referendum — promised by the end of 2017 — could take place soon after.
If all goes smoothly, political commentators say the referendum would most likely take place in July, or alternatively September.
However, Cameron said the vote could be pushed back if he failed to secure satisfactory concessions from Brussels.
“I have to have this referendum by the end of 2017,” he said. “If I can’t get the right deal in February I will wait and I will keep going.”
No contingency plan
Asked whether officials had plans for a “Brexit”, Cameron said “we would need to do everything necessary to make that work”, but did not reveal if any contingencies had been made, angering those campaigning to leave.
“David Cameron’s lack of a plan for withdrawal tells the EU —and voters ?that he has no intention of leaving, guaranteeing that the deal he does finally produce won’t be worth the paper it’s written on,” said Arron Banks, co-founder of the Leave.EU campaign.
A “Brexit” would be a huge blow to Cameron’s reputation, but the prime minister again declared his intention to stay on, whatever the result, saying the referendum was not about “this politician’s future or that politician’s future”.
Recent polls have shown growing momentum for those wanting to leave, although bookmakers still have a “stay” vote as narrow favourite.
Cameron last week met with leaders from Germany, Hungary and the Netherlands as he swung through Europe as part of his diplomatic efforts to secure a deal.
British Prime Minister David Cameron promised to renegotiate the UK's relations with the European Union. The renegotiation will be followed by a referendum by the end of 2017, to decide whether or not the United Kingdom should remain in the EU.
If he achieves the reforms, Cameron will campaign to stay in. Otherwise, the Conservatives might campaign to leave the EU. This decision could have far-reaching consequences for trade, investment and Great Britain's position on the international scene.
Some other European countries are ready to listen to Cameron's concerns on issues such as immigration, and may be prepared to make limited concessions to keep Britain in the bloc.
But EU leaders also have their red lines, and have ruled out changing fundamental EU principles, such as the free movement of workers, and a ban on discriminating between workers from different EU states.
>>Read our LinksDossier: The UK's EU referendum: On the path to Brexit?
- 2016 February: Next - and likely decisive - European Council summit.
- 2016 June: Rumoured favoured date of Cameron for holding the referendum.
- 2017: Self-imposed end of year deadline for in/out referendum.
- July-December 2017: United Kingdom holds rotating EU Council Presidency.