Emboldened David Cameron gets set for EU renegotiations

British prime minister may hold referendum earlier than expected

British prime minister David Cameron talks to staff during a visit to the Tetley factory in Stockton-on-Tees. Mr Cameron told workers that it is “almost impossible to get a decent cup of tea in Europe”. Photograph: PA

British prime minister David Cameron talks to staff during a visit to the Tetley factory in Stockton-on-Tees. Mr Cameron told workers that it is “almost impossible to get a decent cup of tea in Europe”. Photograph: PA


British Prime Minister David Cameron, buoyed by his unexpected majority in the House of Commons, is considering holding a referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union, if he can win concessions from the other 27 states, short of a deal that requires treaty change.

Cameron will begin to lay out his demands for a renegotiation of the United Kingdom’s European Union membership terms when he meets with EU leaders at a summit in Riga in Latvia, where they are due to meet with non-EU Eastern European countries. Cameron has promised to hold a referendum by the end o f 2017, but has indicated that he would be prepared to hold it earlier if a deal can be reached with EU partners – though he has been doubtful on occasions that that has a reasonable prospect of happening.

Now, however, there are signals from No 10 Downing Street that Cameron is ready to consider holding it next May – on the same day when Scots will vote to elect a new Holyrood parliament and Londoners will vote on the successor to Conservative mayor, Boris Johnson.

The timing could prove controversial with Conservative Eurosceptics, since they are likely to see it as being deliberately timed to increase the pro-EU vote because London and Scotland would be seen as among the most EU regions in the UK.

Last night, Cameron sent an conciliatory signal to EU partners by reappointing David Lidlington as Europe Minister, who has spent considerable time over the last year quietly trying to build relations with other EU capitals.

Eurosceptic backbenchers

Eurosceptic Conservative backbenchers, however, are enthusiastic for it to happen next year, but many of them are determined that the UK should leave the EU, not simply stay on with revised membership rules.

Newly-appointed cabinet member and mayor of London Boris Johnson gave a signal to that quarter of the party, saying that would be prepared to vote Yes to stay in “if and only if we get the reforms we need”.

Heightening the bar facing Cameron, Johnson said the prime minister will have to be prepared to warn fellow UK that he will recommend an EU exit if he does not get the concessions that he requires.

“You have got to be able to say to them, ‘Yes, there is another future’. If you don’t have that basic willingness to walk away, you cannot hope for a successful outcome in the negotiations,” Johnson told London’s LBC radio.

He rejected fears that the UK would lose markets, saying the EU would “instantly” do a bilateral deal “because they would be utterly mad to exclude a massive economy with which they have a favourable balance of trade”.

The Cameron diplomatic offensive will be targeted on Paris and Berlin, believing that both countries will be happy to have the British issue settled before both have presidential and federal elections the following year.

Cameron is preparing to have preliminary conversations with “a good number” of his EU counterparts before the June summit, according to the No 10 Downing Street spokesman, on the margins of next week’s EU’s meeting with non-EU Eastern European countries in Riga.

More substantive conversations

In addition, the British PM is expected to have more substantive conversations with French president, Francois Hollande and the German chancellor, Angela Merkel in Bavaria in Germany in early June.

So far, there is no indication that a one-to-one with Taoiseach Enda Kenny is yet on that proposed list of meetings, but the two leaders are already loosely scheduled to meet on the margins of the Brussels gathering in mid-June.

Conservatives’ backbenchers are slow to take onboard an understanding that other EU states will not accept treaty change, or even getting embroiled in talks that will put pressure on them to list their own demands.

Meanwhile, former Labour chancellor of the exchequer, Alistair Darling said he feared that a two-year debate will be “too long”, because the Scottish independence referendum has shown that the arguments never change.

“I would’ve thought a three-month campaign was more than adequate but before you can campaign you need to understand what the question is,” said Darling, but he warned that British voters will have to be clearly told the issues on which they are voting.