Cameron suggests UK referendum on EU ties


BRITISH PRIME minister David Cameron has indicated that a referendum on the United Kingdom’s conditions of European Union membership is increasingly likely, but ruled out one that offers voters a straight “in or out” choice.

The declaration came in a Sunday newspaper article, following concern among Conservative MPs at comments he made after the EU summit on Friday that were interpreted as ruling out a referendum of any kind.

Today Mr Cameron will report to the House of Commons on the outcome of the summit, where he is expected to come under strong pressure from his backbenchers – 100 of whom have already demanded a law that would guarantee a post-2015 referendum.

Mr Cameron said he believed the UK should remain part of the EU. “So I don’t agree with those who say we should leave and therefore want the earliest possible in/out referendum. Leaving would not be in our country’s best interests.” However, he indicated that the referendum to be put to voters could never be a straight in or out question, but rather one that would ask voters’ opinion on new membership terms – a view that will not go far enough for many in his ranks.

“An ‘in’ vote too would have profound disadvantages. All further attempts at changing Britain’s relationship with Europe would be met with cries that the British people had already spoken,” he wrote in the Sunday Telegraph.

“Yet the fact is the British people are not happy with what they have, and neither am I. That’s why I said on Friday that the problem with an in/out referendum is that it offers a single choice,” he said, adding that “the vast majority” want “changes to our relationship”.

Foreign secretary William Hague later emphasised that a referendum on the terms of engagement could not be held until the euro zone crisis was solved. “There may be new treaties,” he said. If the 17 euro zone countries, including Ireland, move towards greater union, then that would create “a very powerful case” for calling a referendum on the UK’s membership, but ministers had to have time first to negotiate “a better relationship”.

Former defence secretary Liam Fox, still popular in the party despite having to resign last year, is to make a speech on the EU today, where he will agree with Mr Cameron’s ambitions, but demand greater speed.

“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,” he wrote yesterday.

“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.” The UK does not suffer from not being part of the EU single market, he will say, since it imports more from the rest of the EU. Others would have more to lose; while world trade rules would make it impossible anyway to penalise the UK.

Mr Cameron’s difficulties are exacerbated by the reality that his backbenchers – 81 of whom rebelled last year in a Commons vote on EU membership – simply do not trust him on EU issues.

Leading Eurosceptic Conservative MP Douglas Carswell said “inch by inch we are getting” closer to an EU referendum campaign, describing Mr Cameron’s article as “a significant piece”.

The attitude of some Conservative MPs has been hardened by the belief that anti-EU party, the UK Independence Party, could gain enough support in the 2015 election to threaten them. Its leader Nigel Farage said Mr Cameron had done nothing more than “offer some sort of vague promise that there might be a referendum in the future, but that it will not be about our membership of the European Union.

“We’ve heard it all before, haven’t we? Don’t forget, this was the man that promised a cast-iron guarantee that if he was prime minister we’d get a referendum on our relationship with Europe.”