Prime Minister David Cameron said he’s not opposed to a popular vote on Britain’s membership of the European Union and that a plebiscite may be needed to gain support for staying in the 27-nation bloc.
Cameron said in an article in the Sunday Telegraph newspaper yesterday he was “not against referendums on Europe” and that “for me, the two words ‘Europe’ and ‘referendum’ can go together.”
The prime minister, who said Britain is better off in the EU, is struggling to silence those in his Conservative Party who want to give Britons a choice between staying in the bloc and leaving it. 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.
“We don’t want a referendum now on being in or out of Europe,” Foreign Secretary William Hague told BBC television’s “Andrew Marr Show” yesterday, when asked about Cameron’s comments. The prime minister “will set out in the autumn in more detail our approach to this, but he’s explained we’re not against referendums per se,” Hague said.
Former Defense Secretary Liam Fox called on the government today to renegotiate membership of the EU and then hold an “in or out” vote on the resulting agreement.
“Life outside the EU holds no terror,” Fox said in a speech in London. “It would, though, given our economic interdependence, be to the advantage of all to create a more stable and mutually agreed compromise.”
Euro-area leaders agreed in December on a blueprint for a closer fiscal union, seeking to solve the region’s sovereign debt crisis that has led to bailout requests from Greece, Portugal, Ireland, Spain and Cyprus.
Hague said the government would prefer to negotiate the return of some powers transferred to the Brussels-based EU and see how euro-area leaders’ measures for closer budgetary and political integration play out before promising a plebiscite.
“We need to be absolutely clear about what we really want, what we now have and the best way of getting what is best for Britain,” Cameron said in his article. “We need to answer those questions before jumping to questions about referendums.”
Still, “we will need to consider how best to get the full-hearted support of the British people, whether it is in a general election or in a referendum,” he said.
About half of U.K. exports go to EU countries and trade with the bloc supports an estimated 3.5 million jobs.
“I don’t agree with those who say we should leave and therefore want the earliest possible in/out referendum,” Cameron said. “Leaving would not be in our country’s best interests.”
Cameron’s comments threaten to increase divisions with his coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, as well as inside his own party.
The debate about Britain’s EU membership is “horribly irrelevant at a time of major upheaval,” Vince Cable, the Liberal Democrat business secretary, said in an interview on Sky News television yesterday. “We need this to settle down, to play a constructive role in helping the euro zone sort out its problems and then we can decide whether anything is fundamentally different that needs to be voted on.”
Still, Cameron may ultimately find he has little choice but to offer Britain’s first popular vote on Europe since 1975 and after almost four decades of EU membership.
Fifty-one percent of Britons 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 Plc poll of 1,683 adults carried out on May 17 and May 18.
“I don’t think we could, or should, sensibly take a decision on an in or out referendum now,” Douglas Alexander, the foreign affairs spokesman for the opposition Labour Party, said in an interview on Sky News yesterday. “Until we have clarity as to the character of post-crisis Europe, then I think a lot of this speculation actually reflects the relative positions of the Conservative Party leadership, rather than a clear-eye view of Britain’s future.”
Sixty-eight percent of Britons said there should be a referendum before any further transfer of powers from the U.K. to the EU, according to an ICM Ltd. survey for the Sunday Telegraph newspaper published yesterday. The poll of 2,029 adults on June 27 and June 28 found 38 percent would vote for Labour if there was a general election tomorrow, while 31 percent would back the Conservatives. The Liberal Democrats got 17 percent.