British Prime Minister David Cameron on Wednesday (7 October) promised not to “duck a fight” with the European Union over his country’s renegotiation of membership, ahead of a referendum on the UK’s 42-year membership of the bloc.
Speaking at his Conservative party’s annual conference in Manchester, England, Cameron called the EU “too big, too bossy and too interfering.”
But he stopped short of naming a date for the in/out referendum – which he has promised by the end of 2017 – or spelling out progress in his ongoing talks with other EU leaders.
“We don’t duck fights. We get stuck in. We fix problems,” he said of the behind-closed-doors talks with Brussels, Berlin, Paris, Warsaw and other key member states.
In fact, the prime minister devoted just three minutes to Europe in his annual address to delegates – despite the referendum promising to be the defining issue of his second and final term as prime minister.
Instead, Cameron reeled off a list of negatives associated with Brussels, pointing out that on issues such as open borders, the currency, a Budget rebate or bailouts, where in Britain “we do things our way.”
“I have no romantic attachment to the EU and it’s institutions,” he said, pointing out that the country in 1975 merely voted to stay in a common market.
“Very clearly, Britain is not interested in ‘ever closer union’, and I will put that right”, he added.
Instead Cameron championed the UK’s achievements in helping the TransAtlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) trade talks with the US and sanctions against Syria as London’s major recent achievements in Brussels.
Although Cameron has committed himself to campaigining to stay in the EU if his membership renegotiation is successful, it was notable that his words on Europe attracted the most muted applause from his largely Eurosceptic party’s grassroots members.
The Conservative government won a surprise, but slender, majority of 12 in the British election in May, and many of Cameron’s backbench MPs, and even some of his cabinet, are firmly in favour of withdrawal – as are the four million British voters who plumped for the UK Independence Party in May.
The main planks of the Conservative negotiation are a restriction on the freedom of moment and labour, restrictions on so-called ‘welfare tourism’, an opt out from the goal of ‘ever closer union’, and greater powers for the non-euro currency members, such as the UK, Denmark and Sweden.
Appeals in negotiations with Berlin, Warsaw and elsewhere to restrict freedom of movement across the bloc have apparently been met with outright rejection, although there may be common ground on restricting rights to benefits.
“I’m only interested in two things: Britain’s prosperity and Britain’s influence. That’s why I’m going to fight so hard in this renegotiation, so we can get a better deal and the best of both worlds,” he concluded.
Most commentators expect a referendum at some point during 2016, as France and Germany both go to the polls in 2017, reducing the room for political manoeuvring.
Recent opinion polls have shown the gap between those in favour of staying and leaving as narrowing, with even occasional polls showing a slim majority in favour of exit. The most recent, in September for IPSOS/MORI, gave ‘stay’ 45%, and 38% for ‘exit.’
Cameron has pledged to step down as prime minister before the 2020 election, making the Manchester conference into a starting gun for the next Conservative party leadership battle – where positions on EU membership will be a key issue.
One possible contender, Home Secretary Theresa May, previously told the conference that mass migration threatened UK social cohesion, brought “close to zero” economic benefits, and that the 800,000-1 million anticipated asylum seekers in Germany would in the future be able to bring their wives and families to settle in the UK.
Boris Johnson, the outgoing Mayor of London, has made Eurosceptic speeches, but yet to commit himself to campaigning either way.
UKIP leader and MEP Nigel Farage said Cameron had said “nothing concrete about the EU”.
“What are these proposed renegotiations, Mr Cameron? What are you actually bringing back for Britain? All that he is demanding is change of rhetoric, a stop to ever closer union, and even on this, he has been told it simply won’t happen,” Farage said in a statement.
The pro-membership lobby group British Influence gave the speech a cautious welcome. “David Cameron appreciates that Britain needs to be a leader in a reformed EU, and that he cannot sell merely the renegotiation, he must sell a positive vision of Britain in a reformed EU, “ director Peter Wilding told EURACTIV.