Referendum on Britain remaining in EU set for 2017

DAVID Cameron has left open the possibility he will campaign for the UK’s exit from the European Union if he cannot negotiate better membership terms which the French and German governments have today said they will oppose.

• EU referendum to be held after next election pending Conservative win

After a major speech this morning on Britain’s place in the EU, Mr Cameron insisted that the UK should stay in but said that the terms of membership need to be renegotiated.

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He promised that if he is prime minister after the 2015 election there will be an in/ out referendum based on a renegotiated settlement by 2017.

But within an hour of his speech the German and French governments, the EU’s most powerful members, led opposition to the UK renegotiating the terms of its membership undermining Mr Cameron’s hopes to present a new settlement to the British people.

Guido Westerwelle, Germany’s foreign minister, said: “Britain should not seek further derogations within the EU. Not everything needs to be regulated in Brussels and Brussels, but a policy of cherry-picking will not work.”

French Socialist foreign minister Laurent Fabius said the British Prime Minister was behaving like a club football player who suddenly announces he wants to play rugby.

Mr Fabius went on French radio after Mr Cameron finished speaking and said: “We are like a football club, and if you want to join the football club, you can’t then say you want to play rugby.”

Former Belgian prime minister and Liberal Democrat leader in the European Parliament Guy Verhofstadt accused Mr Cameron of “playing with fire” over EU membership and warned against trying “hold the EU to ransom”

With EU member states suggesting that they will not allow the UK to opt out of more of the organisation, Mr Cameron refused to rule out campaigning for the UK exit if he cannot renegotiate a new settlement.

Avoiding the question he said: “I am an optimist. I don’t go into a negotiation believing I will fail.”

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Arguing that the mandate for membership of the EU for the UK is “wafer thin” he also compared the need for a referendum with the need for an independence Scottish referendum after the SNP won the 2011 Holyrood election victory.

He said: “As with Scotland you simply cannot bury your head in the sand.”

The speech also widened the rift in the coalition between the Tories and Lib Dems with Lib Dem Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, who promised an in/ out referendum in the 2010 general election but has since changed his mind, warning it would be more difficult to rebuild the economy if Britain was facing years of uncertainty over its status in Europe.

“I think my view is that the overwhelming priority of the British people is jobs, is growth, is a strong economy and my view is that that is made all the more difficult, achieving that ambition, if you have years and years of uncertainty because of an ill-defined and protracted renegotiation of Britain’s status within the European Union,” he said.

Political opponents said Mr Cameron has put the UK on route to an exit from the EU.

Former Lib Dem leader Paddy Ashdown said: “Mr Cameron has effectively told us that it is his intention to put Britain on a one-way street to leaving Europe.”

Former Labour cabinet minister Lord Mandelson, who also served as a European commissioner, said of the Prime Minister’s speech: “It is not a search together in unity with our partners in Europe.

“Effectively, it’s an ultimatum to them with a deadline, with the Prime Minister not saying he will get the best deal for Britain and then recommend that we stay in because that’s in our national interest to do so, he is actually leaving open the option to recommend against the deal he gets and to Britain leaving the European Union altogether,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

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“That’s quite a major step for a British prime minister to signal.”

The SNP claimed that Mr cameron’s speech changes the terms of the Scottish independence referendum and makes Scotland’s membership of the EU more likely if it leaves the UK.

First Minister Alex Salmond said: “This was a fundamentally confused speech by the Prime Minister which is painfully short on detail.

“On the one hand he is trying to appease the Eurosceptics on his own backbenches and on the other he is trying to appear as a European reformer. He is trying to ride two horses at the same time and it is inevitable he will fall off before long.

“This completely changes the nature of the debate in Scotland. The Westminster parties have consistently claimed that a referendum on Scotland’s independence causes uncertainty.

“It is now clear the persistent undercurrent of Tory Euroscepticism poses the biggest threat to Scotland’s position in the EU and has now helped to hole below the waterline the baseless scaremongering of Alistair Darling and the rest of the No campaign.”In the Conservative Party eurosceptics, including for defence secretaqry Liam Fox welcomed the speech and supported the Prime minister’s policy.

Leading Tory figures also called on the party to now start talking about different issues.

The party’s leading donor and former treasurer Lord Ashcroft said: “The new policy will be in the manifesto. The only question is whether we will get a chance to implement it – and that depends on whether we get a majority at the next election. And that depends on how voters think we are doing on the economy, jobs, public services, welfare, crime, immigration: whether we are on their side and understand their priorities.

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“It is time for Tory Eurosceptics to declare victory and talk about something else.”

The speech, which has been six months in the planning and was postponed from last week because of the Algerian hostage crisis, comes amid growing Tory backbench concern about the rising tide of support for the UK Independence Party (UKIP), which has recorded poll ratings of 10 per cent or more with its call for an immediate in/out poll.

UKIP leader Nigel Farage said that the speech marked a victory for his party.

He said: “What the PM said today has defined the national debate about our place in the European Union. No longer can the case for British withdrawal be confined to the margins. The genie is out of the bottle”.

He went on: “Whilst UKIP, regards this speech as its greatest achievement to date, the real work for our party has only just begun.

“The PM has made clear his commitment to the EU Single Market, which will now become the rallying point for the old establishment in this country. Our job will be to point out that argument for the Single Market, is just the same as one used for the Common Market years ago”.

Mr Cameron acknowledged that public support for the EU is “thin” in the UK, where concern over the lack of democratic accountability is “particularly acute”.

But he argued that a vote now between the European status quo and departure would be “an entirely false choice”, as the EU is set to be “transformed perhaps beyond recognition” over the coming years by the measures needed to save the single currency.

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“We need to allow some time for that to happen - and help to shape the future of the European Union, so that when the choice comes it will be a real one,” he said.

Mr Cameron warned voters that their decision in a referendum will be “an important choice to make about our country’s destiny” and cautioned against opting for exit without thinking through the consequences.

“I understand the appeal of going it alone, of charting our own course,” he said.

“But it will be a decision we will have to take with cool heads. Proponents of both sides of the argument will need to avoid exaggerating their claims.

“Of course Britain could make her own way in the world outside the EU if we chose to do so. So could any other member state.

“But the question we will have to ask ourselves is this: is that the very best future for our country?”

Insisting that he is not a “British isolationist”, Mr Cameron rejected arguments that Norway or Switzerland provide a model for a successful future for the UK outside the EU.

Continued access to the single market is “vital for British businesses and British jobs”, he said.

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And he warned that Britain would lose influence internationally if it quit, arguing: “There is no doubt that we are more powerful in Washington, in Beijing, in Delhi because we are a powerful player in the European Union.

“That matters for British jobs and British security.”

Mr Cameron urged the UK’s EU partners to “work with us on this one”, warning that if Britain’s hopes for a fresh settlement are not fulfilled, there is a risk it will “drift towards the exit”.

This would be bad not only for the UK but for Europe too, he said.

“It is hard to argue that the EU would not be greatly diminished by Britain’s departure,” said the Prime Minister.

Setting his face firmly against a British exit, he said: “I do not want that to happen. I want the European Union to be a success and I want a relationship between Britain and the EU that keeps us in it.”

On the specifics of the new settlement he will seek, Mr Cameron said he wanted to see a more flexible Europe that ditches the principle of “ever closer union” and allows different member states to choose their own level of integration.

“We must not be weighed down by an insistence on a one-size-fits-all approach which implies that all countries want the same level of integration,” he said. “The fact is that they don’t and we shouldn’t assert that they do.”

Any changes to the eurozone to deal with the single currency crisis must include safeguards for non-euro states’ access to the single market, said Mr Cameron.

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EU competitiveness must be boosted by dealing with rules which restrict the labour market and subject businesses to excessive regulation and creating “a leaner, less bureaucratic union”.

And Europe must respond to the increasing frustration of its citizens that decisions affecting their lives are decided “further and further away from them”.

Britain’s vision is of “a flexible union of free member states who share treaties and institutions and pursue together the ideal of co-operation,” said the Prime Minister.

And he added: “When the referendum comes, let me say now that if we can negotiate such an arrangement, I will campaign for it with all my heart and soul.

“Becuase 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.”

Business leaders welcomed the speech.

Simon Walker, Director General of the Institute of Directors, said: “The Prime Minister’s approach is realistic and pragmatic. The British public, and many of our members, are sceptical about many of the institutions and practices of the EU. We need to put their doubts to rest.”

John Walker, national chairman of the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB), said: “The FSB remains neutral on the issue of being ‘in’ or ‘out’ of the European Union, but recognises that although there is now a time delay over the future of membership of the EU for British small businesses, there is more certainty going forward to 2017/18.

“We will work with the Government to ensure the British people have as much information as possible to make an informed decision.”

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However, Terry Scuoler, chief executive of manufacturers’ organisation the EEF, said: “The PM’s commitment to reshape the EU from within and his ambition to secure a better deal for Britain is right. But this strategy is not without risk.

“If the door to a UK exit from the union is open, it will diminish our ability to influence the reforms that Europe needs. It is far from certain, moreover, that the outcome of negotiations will be clear-cut, meaning that greater uncertainty about UK membership - particularly for business - will prevail.”