British Prime Minister David Cameron travels to a crisis summit today pinched by conflicting calls from allies at home to quit the European Union and the quest by euro leaders for a more integrated body politic.
Cameron, who says Britain is better off in the EU, is struggling to silence those in his Conservative Party who want to give voters a choice between staying in the 27-nation bloc and leaving it in the first plebiscite on Europe since 1975.
Pressure for a vote is building as the quest to end Europe’s debt turmoil propels the 17 countries that use the euro toward closer political and fiscal union, leaving Britain increasingly isolated.
“The general subject of Europe is vexed for Cameron because he wants to keep Britain in Europe but there is a very big group in his party -- as big as 40 percent -- who would like to take Britain out,” said Bill Jones, professor of politics at Liverpool Hope University.
EU leaders convene today and tomorrow in Brussels for their 19th summit since the sovereign debt crisis started two years ago. Their talks will focus on a road map released this week by four officials led by EU President Herman Van Rompuy.
The plan centers on common banking supervision and deposit insurance and a “criteria-based and phased” move toward jointly issued debt. It also suggests that the EU could impose limits on annual budgets and debt of nations that use the euro.
Cameron says euro-area countries need to press ahead with fiscal and banking union to save their currency, yet insists Britain will play no part nor contribute to bailouts of stricken euro economies.
“It is a very vital summit that is taking place,” he told the House of Commons yesterday. “The euro-zone countries need to do more in the short term to settle the financial markets but they also need to take medium- and longer-term steps to make sense of the euro zone. Now that will involve them sharing greater powers and that is something that the U.K. shouldn’t be involved in.”
Cameron says Britain must remain a part of the EU, with which the country does half its trade and which supports an estimated 3.5 million jobs. Still, he may ultimately find he has little choice but to offer a popular vote after almost four decades of membership.
According to some Conservatives, a vote is needed to fend off the U.K. Independence Party, which wants Britain to pull out of the EU. Forty percent of Conservatives are considering voting for UKIP, enough to deny them a majority in 2015 elections, according to YouGov Plc President Peter Kellner.
At the same time, concerns are growing that the Labour opposition may be first to promise a referendum in an attempt to exploit Tory divisions. The government may seek to renegotiate the terms of membership in areas such as employment rules and promise a plebescite on the results. For many, that’s not enough.
“We need an in/out referendum,” Tory lawmaker Douglas Carswell said in a telephone interview. “Once we have left the EU, we will be able to become a more competitive economy, return to being a truly global and open society and we will be able to renew our democracy. We will be a happier country.”
Polls show popular sentiment against the EU providing ammunition for Tories who want a relationship with the EU akin to that of Switzerland and Norway -- a free-trade agreement providing access to the single market of 500 million people, and no more.
Fifty-one percent of voters said they’d vote to leave the EU if there was a referendum on membership, compared with 28 percent who said they’d vote to stay in, according to YouGov poll of 1,683 adults carried out on May 17 and May 18.
Meanwhile, 83 percent of rank-and-file Tories want an in/out referendum to be included in the manifesto for the 2015 general election, with seven in 10 saying they’d vote the leave the EU. The survey of 1,600 party members was carried out by the ConservativeHome website for Channel 4 News last month.
Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath took Britain into an embryonic EU, the European Economic Community, in 1973, a decision endorsed in a referendum two years later. His three Tory successors have each battled to maintain influence in Europe while refusing to sign up to the grander dreams of their neighbors.
In December, Cameron left other EU nations to go it alone with a new fiscal treaty after delivering on a veto threat his predecessors carried with them to Brussels for 30 years.
Tensions flared earlier this month. As Cameron prepared to visit Berlin on June 7, German Chancellor Angela Merkel told ARD television that she backed a two-speed Europe in which Britain would be relegated to the margins.
In October, former French President Nicolas Sarkozy raised his voice tell Cameron -- who had pressed for speedier action to resolve the crisis -- that if the U.K. wanted to be involved it should have joined the euro.
“There’s only a certain amount of time he can stall for,” said Tim Bale, a professor of politics at the University of Sussex who studies the Conservative Party. “There is pressure on him to take powers back at a time when the rest of Europe is pushing for more integration. There is nothing he can possibly deliver: it will all be mood music.”