Thursday 24 January 2013

Yes, Prime Minister! Cameron's EU referendum unites Tories, delights business and even gets Germany on side

David Cameron pulled off the seemingly impossible last night with his historic EU referendum pledge.

It not only united Eurosceptic Tory big beasts and Britain’s business leaders, but even won the support of Germany’s Angela Merkel.

He sent shockwaves through Europe as he declared Britain rejects ‘ever closer union’, the founding principle of the European Union, and gave a guarantee of an in/out vote on our membership if he is prime minister after 2015.

Mr Cameron vowed to campaign for Britain to stay in – as long as Brussels agreed to renegotiate a looser, more trade-based relationship with key powers returned to Westminster – but added: ‘I say to the British people: This will be your decision.’

He has set himself the Herculean task of persuading other EU leaders and Brussels eurocrats to back his calls for reform against strong opposition from the likes of Spain and Italy.

Though he said renegotiation would not begin until the next Parliament, he will now come under pressure to spell out more precisely his repatriation demands. Mr Cameron insisted that a referendum to be held by the end of 2017 would be a deal-breaker in any future coalition agreement with the Lib Dems.

While it had been trailed for months, the Prime Minister’s announcement left Labour in chaos as Ed Miliband told MPs he did not want an in/out referendum, only for other senior figures to insist later that he might.

In direct contradiction of his leader, shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander said: ‘Never say never.’ And another Labour frontbencher, Caroline Flint, said of Mr Miliband’s statement: ‘This is our position today.’

In a sign of potential tension within the Coalition, however, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said ‘years of uncertainty’ caused by a future referendum would hit jobs and growth and this ‘was not in the national interest’.

But Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith, the Cabinet’s Eurosceptic standard-bearer, told the Daily Mail that Mr Cameron’s long-awaited speech on Britain’s future in Europe was ‘bloody marvellous’.

‘This is a seismic moment,’ he said. ‘The Prime Minister shows real leadership compared to Ed Miliband, who has now confirmed that come the election Labour will campaign against a referendum and against giving people a choice.

‘If you want a referendum, you have to vote Tory. If you don’t want one, you vote Labour.’

In an article for the Mail, former defence secretary Liam Fox – another leading light among Tory Eurosceptics – says Conservative MPs have ‘waited a long time’ for a prime minister to deliver such a ‘hugely significant message’ and promise the British people ‘a definitive choice through a referendum’.

Mr Cameron’s speech was hailed as ‘bang on’ by London Mayor Boris Johnson, who had ‘no doubt’ the British people would vote for the kind of renegotiated membership the Prime Minister envisaged.

‘What most sensible people want is to belong to the single market but to lop off the irritating excrescences of the European Union,’ he said.

He added: ‘There are a lot of other countries around that want to see reform. I think it’s going to be much simpler than people expect to get a better deal.’

Downing Street was delighted and surprised as Chancellor Merkel, Europe’s most powerful figure, responded to Mr Cameron’s speech by opening the door to a renegotiation of Britain’s membership terms.
‘Germany, and I personally, want Britain to be an important part and an active member of the European Union,’ she said. ‘We are prepared to talk about British wishes but we must always bear in mind that other countries have different wishes and we must find a fair compromise. We will talk intensively with Britain about its individual ideas.’
The public remains deeply divided over whether Britain should quit the EU, according to recent polls.
But the latest surveys suggest that support for leaving has faded as the debate over the issue has intensified.
A YouGov survey at the weekend found that 40 per cent of people would now vote to stay in the EU compared to 34 per cent wanting to quit – the first time since the 2010 election that most have said Britain should not leave.
As recently as November, 51 per cent said they wanted to quit and just 30 per cent wanted to stay in.
YouGov’s Peter Kellner said: ‘Our latest results confirm the pattern of the last four decades – that when Europe lurks at the back of people’s minds we would rather keep our distance, but when that talk turns to a decision to withdraw we start to contemplate the prospects of life outside the EU and fear this might not be so attractive after all.'

By contrast, Italy insisted the EU ‘only wants willing members’, while France offered to ‘roll out the red carpet’ for businessmen it claimed would lead an exodus to its shores if Britain left the EU.

French foreign minister Laurent Fabius told Mr Cameron: ‘You can’t do Europe a la carte... to take an example which our British friends will understand, imagine Europe is a football club and you join; once you’re in it you can’t say, “Let’s play rugby”.’

But Britain’s leading business groups backed the Prime Minister’s stance, while 55 business chiefs – including the heads of the Stock Exchange, Diageo and Standard Chartered – signed a supportive joint letter.

John Cridland, director general of the employers’ group the CBI, agreed with Mr Cameron that ‘closer union of the eurozone is not for us’, and said the Prime Minister ‘rightly recognises the benefits of retaining membership of what must be a reformed EU’.

Mr Cameron, who was forced to postpone his speech last week because of the Algeria hostage crisis, set out a hugely ambitious vision of a transformed EU.

Casting himself as a modern-day heretic, he said ‘nothing’ would be off the table when he presents demands for the repatriation of a swathe of powers if he wins the 2015 election.

He cited EU regulations on employment, the environment, social affairs and crime as among ‘so many areas’ where he wanted to ‘examine whether the balance is right’.

He suggested the ‘principal reason’ for Britain’s membership of the EU was ‘our participation in the single market and our ability to help set its rules’ – suggesting he wants a return to something like the Common Market Britain joined in 1975.

He said he wanted to challenge the central tenet of the EU – the commitment in the founding Treaty of Rome in 1957 to create an ‘ever closer union’.

‘We understand and respect the right of others to maintain their commitment to this goal. But for Britain – and perhaps for others – it is not the objective.

'And we would be much more comfortable if the treaty specifically said so, freeing those who want to go further, faster, to do so, without being held back by the others,’ Mr Cameron said.

He said he wanted a new EU treaty, saying he believed one would be necessary to create the closer economic and political union for eurozone countries fighting to save the single currency.

But he insisted that even if negotiations were opened, he would be prepared to follow the example of Harold Wilson, who asked for changes to Britain’s membership terms outside a treaty ahead of the 1975 referendum.

He said his aim was to ensure Britain remains a member of a more ‘open and flexible’ EU, saying even if Britain left it would remain ‘for many years our biggest market, and forever our geographical neighbourhood’.

But in a warning directed firmly at Mrs Merkel, he said the EU would be ‘greatly diminished’ by a British exit.

‘An EU without Britain, without one of Europe’s strongest powers, a country which in many ways invented the single market, and which brings real heft to Europe’s influence on the world stage, which plays by the rules and which is a force for liberal economic reform, would be a very different kind of European Union,’ he added.

Mr Cameron was unclear about whether he would campaign in favour of a No vote in his referendum if he failed to secure his demands. ‘Who goes into a negotiation hoping and expecting to fail? That is not the approach I take,’ he said.

Former Lib Dem leader Charles Kennedy said he could not envisage his party agreeing to a referendum if the Conservatives failed to win a majority at the next election and wanted to form another coalition.

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