Britain’s Queen Elizabeth on Wedensday (27 May) set in motion Prime Minister David Cameron’s plans for a European Union membership referendum on Wednesday as he faced pressure to explain when it will be held and what changes to the EU he wants beforehand.
Cameron, who says he would prefer to stay inside a reformed EU but isn’t “ruling anything out” if it fails to change, was re-elected on May 7 on a pledge to reshape ties with the bloc before allowing Britons to vote on whether to stay or leave.
Donning her crown as she sat on a gilded throne in a packed House of Lords, the 89-year-old queen outlined the referendum plans in a speech written for her by Cameron’s Conservative government as she opened parliament with a customary display of pomp.
“My government will renegotiate the United Kingdom’s relationship with the European Union and pursue reform of the European Union for the benefit of all member states,” the queen told an audience made up of politicians and lords clad in crimson robes trimmed with white ermine.
“Alongside this, early legislation will be introduced to provide for an in-out referendum on membership of the European Union before the end of 2017.”
The law will be introduced into parliament on Thursday as Cameron begins a European tour to try to charm sometimes reluctant counterparts into endorsing EU reform.
Charm offensive in EU capitals
The tour will include talks with French President Francois Hollande in Paris and German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin.
Cameron has said he would be ready to hold the referendum before 2017 if he completes the renegotiation early, something some pro-EU campaigners advocate. But he is under pressure from some of his own Eurosceptic lawmakers who want him to ask for more and to take his time reaching any settlement.
Some EU politicians have complained they do not know enough, beyond what they say are broad and nebulous goals, about what it is Cameron wants to change. He says he wants to decouple Britain from the EU’s official aim of “ever closer union” and to be able to restrict EU migrants’ access to Britain’s welfare system.
Cameron is adamant that such changes would require re-opening the EU’s founding treaties, something countries such as France are opposed to.
In a potential setback for the prime minister, a Franco-German paper seen by Reuters shows the two countries have agreed plans to strengthen cooperation among the 19 countries using the euro currency, without changing existing treaties.
The blueprint would bolster the eurozone, of which Britain is not a member, by holding more regular summits of its leaders and strengthening the Eurogroup forum of finance ministers.
Other laws Queen Elizabeth outlined on Wednesday included a crackdown on illegal immigration, more devolved powers for Scotland and a bill preventing any rise in key taxes before 2020.
A law to reform human rights legislation, designed to weaken the influence of the European Court of Human Rights, was not part of the package, however.
Cameron had not promised to immediately press ahead with the move, but his decision to tackle it later stoked speculation he wanted to avoid an early showdown over a plan that has divided his party.
Chris Cummings, Chief Executive at TheCityUK, responds to the measures outlined in the Queen's speech: “TheCityUK believes that a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU should be based on a constructive reform agenda that will benefit the City, the UK and Europe. Prolonged uncertainty around the UK’s status as an EU Member State could harm the UK’s business environment and impact major investment decisions, and therefore a referendum should be held without undue delay.
“The UK is Europe’s financial capital and the financial and related professional services industry has a vital role to play in facilitating the investment that will create sustainable economic growth across the EU, helping business to thrive and create jobs. The EU is the UK’s biggest market for exports, responsible for over one third of the UK’s £58.5 billion financial services trade surplus in 2013.
“Our research reveals that 95% of business leaders believe that being part of the Single European Market is important to the UK’s future competitiveness; 84% have stated that they want to remain in the EU. But they recognise that reform is essential and we look forward to seeing a reform package that delivers an EU that is dynamic, flexible and globally competitive.”
David Cameron's ruling Conservative party won an outright majority on 7th of May parliamentary election, winning 12 seats more than all the other parties combined, allowing them to govern alone.
Cameron has promised to renegotiate the country's relationship with the EU and then call a referendum by 2017 on whether to stay or leave, a decision with far-reaching implications for trade, investment and Britain's place in the world.
Since his re-election, Cameron has phoned several European leaders to discuss his planned EU renegotiation, which he has said will get underway soon.
The issue of Europe has split the Conservatives before and contributed to the downfall of two of Cameron's predecessors, Margaret Thatcher and John Major.
Cameron, who has said his preference is for Britain to remain in a reformed EU, is keen to avoid another split. But he has not ruled out an exit if he fails to get the changes he wants.
The impact of a UK exit of the European Union would hit Britain harder than Germany or the rest of Europe, warns the Bertelsmann Stiftung, saying 'Brexit" could shave 14% off the country's GDP.