March 12, 2014
Cameron to promise Britons straight choice on EU exit
Prime Minister David Cameron will promise today to give Britons a straight referendum choice on whether to stay in the European Union or leave, provided he wins an election in 2015.
Cameron will end months of speculation by announcing in a speech the plan for a vote sometime between 2015 and 2018, shrugging off warnings that this could imperil Britain's diplomatic and economic prospects and alienate its allies.
In extracts of the speech released in advance by his office, Cameron said public disillusionment with the EU is at "an all-time high."
"It is time for the British people to have their say. It is time to settle this European question in British politics," he said in the extracts, adding that his Conservative party would campaign for the 2015 election promising to renegotiate Britain's EU membership.
"And when we have negotiated that new settlement, we will give the British people a referendum with a very simple in or out choice to stay in the EU on these new terms; or come out altogether. It will be an in-out referendum."
Whether Cameron will ever hold the referendum remains as uncertain as the Conservatives' chances of winning the next election due in 2015.
They trail the opposition Labour party in opinion polls, and the coalition government is pushing through painful public spending cuts to try to reduce Britain's large budget deficit that are likely to upset voters in the meantime.
Cameron's promise looks likely to satisfy much of his own party, which has been split on the issue, but may create uncertainty when events could put his preferred option - a looser version of full British membership - out of reach.
The move may also unsettle other EU states, such as France and Germany. European officials have already warned Cameron against treating the bloc as an "a la carte menu" from which he can pick and choose membership terms.
His speech in London is also likely to disappoint the United States, a close ally, which has said it wants Britain to remain inside the EU with "a strong voice".
Nor is it likely to help heal rifts with his pro-European Liberal Democrat junior coalition partners.
Cameron said he would prefer Britain, the world's sixth biggest economy, to remain inside the 27-nation EU but he also made clear he believes the EU must be radically reformed.
A new EU must be built upon five principles, he said: competitiveness, flexibility, power flowing back to - not just away from - member states, democratic accountability and fairness.
The euro zone debt crisis is a main reason why Britain must reassess its relationship with the wider EU. "The European Union that emerges from the Eurozone crisis is going to be a very different body," he said.
"It will be transformed perhaps beyond recognition by the measures needed to save the Eurozone. 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."