Cameron brings forward speech on UK role in Europe

Tue, Jan 15, 2013, 00:00

British prime minister David Cameron has been forced to bring forward his speech laying out demands for the UK’s renegotiated membership of the European Union. This follows fears that expectations are being set too high by those who want to quit the union.

Mr Cameron was to have given his long-anticipated speech in the Netherlands next Tuesday, but this has been brought forward to Friday, particularly because Tuesday would have clashed with planned commemorations of the Franco-German Élysée treaty.

Downing Street had also begun to fear that sticking to the original timetable would have left too much room for Mr Cameron’s largely Eurosceptic backbenchers to set unrealistic expectations.

Yesterday the prime minister emphasised he did not favour “an in-out referendum tomorrow or very shortly”, because that would put a false choice before the voters.

Instead, he wants to renegotiate the UK’s membership during talks among euro zone members on changes needed to save the euro. He would then put that renegotiated deal before voters in 2018 – three years after the next scheduled general election.

Internal party pressures on Mr Cameron were illustrated last night by an opinion poll conducted by the influential Conservative website, ConservativeHome, which claims that 78 per cent of party members want to quit the EU, or have only common market ties with it.

In his speech, the prime minister will make it clear that the UK wants to repatriate powers over working hours – regarded as unworkable within the National Health Service, for one – and an end to some elements of the EU’s social chapter.

Such changes would be popular among Conservatives, but not necessarily among workers once they realise that victory for the UK in negotiations with Brussels would reduce employment rights.

No 10 is vague on the other issues to be included even though it insists the speech is written. However, other EU countries have warned that the UK cannot have “the single market and nothing else”.

Opposition

There is no Brussels deal that could sate the appetite of many Conservative backbenchers. They are more opposed to the EU than those who opposed the Maastricht Treaty 20 years ago.

Labour’s shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander said Mr Cameron had “been driven to this position not by high policy but by low politics”, because of “immense pressure from backbenchers in his own party for whom a referendum in their minds is a proxy for exit.

“He’s under significant electoral pressure because of people’s disappointment with the Tories and a choice that they are going to support Ukip. The reason he’s making these calls is because he’s trying to bridge what remains an unbridgeable gap,” he said.