A REFERENDUM on the UK’s place in Europe looks increasingly likely, after Foreign Secretary William Hague said the case would be “very, very powerful” if a more federal system emerges across the continent, as expected, after the eurozone crisis.
Mr Hague indicated the vote would not happen until it was clear how Europe would develop after the eurozone fallout.
The comments came as Prime Minister David Cameron said he would look at a referendum on the UK’s EU relationship when the time was right.
But Tory back-benchers accused the leadership of offering “jam tomorrow”, while former defence secretary Liam Fox will today appeal to his party’s eurosceptic rank-and-file by saying that “life outside the EU holds no terror”.
Mr Hague said the Prime Minister would set out his position on a referendum in more detail in the autumn, after Mr Cameron said he was prepared to consider a referendum, though with the caveate that an immediate in-out vote was not what most wanted.
Mr Cameron acknowledged the need to ensure the UK’s position within an evolving EU had “the full-hearted support of the British people”.
He stressed there would be further opportunities in the coming months and years to win back powers from Brussels and that he wanted to be able to offer voters a “real choice” in any potential referendum.
He said he wanted to scrap “whole swathes” of legislation on social issues, working time and home affairs.
“As we get closer to the end point, we will need to consider how best to get the full-hearted support of the British people, whether it is in a general election or a referendum,” he said.
“As I have said, for me the two words ‘Europe’ and ‘referendum’ can go together, particularly if we really are proposing a change in how our country is governed, but let us get the people a real choice first.”
The Foreign Secretary backed Mr Cameron’s call, insisting that the government wanted the opportunity to negotiate a “better relationship” between the UK and Brussels, which would include the return of some powers, before asking the British people to vote.
A closer union is expected as countries try to deal with the eurozone crisis.
Mr Hague added; “If it changes in that way, and once we know whether we can get a better relationship with Europe, then that is the time to make the case for a referendum or, if there is a clear division between the parties, to decide in a general election. he said: “That is the time, not now.”
Many Conservative MPs want the government to make a legal commitment to hold a vote on the UK’s relationship with the EU in the next parliament.
In a speech today, Dr Fox will say: “I would like to see Britain negotiate a new relationship on the basis that, if we achieved it and our future relationship was economic rather than political, we would advocate acceptance in a referendum of this new dynamic.
“If, on the other hand, others would not accede to our requests for a rebalancing in the light of the response to the euro crisis, then we would recommend rejection and potential departure from the EU.”
Influential eurosceptic back-bencher Mark Pritchard said Conservative grassroots were “fed up of aluminium guarantees” and insisted there should be a referendum during the current parliament.
“Once again, when it comes to Europe, it’s always jam tomorrow. But tomorrow may never come,” he said.
Nearly 100 Conservative MPs wrote to Mr Cameron recently urging him to make a legal commitment to hold a poll on the UK’s relationship with the EU during the next parliament.
John Baron, who organised the letter, said: “I welcome the fact he is now talking about a referendum, but you will notice he hasn’t promised one and that he is justifying that position by suggesting now is not a good time for an in-out referendum.
“That’s not what we have called for in our letter. We have simply called for a commitment to be put on the statute book in this parliament for a referendum in the next parliament.”
Eurosceptic and former Cabinet minister John Redwood said: “We would like to get on with it. We know already what powers we want to get back. We need to disengage from some of the power-grab that is now under way, as they desperately try to buttress their currency.
“The deal Britain should offer them is we will not get in their way if they are determined to move to political union and to very expensive transfers to prop up the banks, but Britain wants to move in the opposite direction at the same time.”
UKIP leader Nigel Farage said Tory MPs demanding an in-out referendum were “in the wrong party”.
He added: “If he thinks by doing that he’s shot UKIP’s fox and he’s buried this issue in the long grass, he’s in for another think.”
Labour’s shadow Treasury secretary Rachel Reeves told the BBC a vote was not the right priority while the UK was in recession, but she would not rule out Labour support for one in the future.