Prime Minister David Cameron will set out how he plans to renegotiate Britain’s membership of the European Union, and then persuade voters to back his position in a referendum, in a speech in the Netherlands on Jan. 18.
Cameron wants Britain to reclaim unspecified powers from the EU, and he signaled his support yesterday for putting the result to a plebiscite after the 2015 general election, with the government arguing to stay in the EU. He dismissed as a “false choice” calls from members of his Conservative Party for an early vote on leaving the 27-nation bloc.
The prime minister chose the Netherlands because it is a “founding member of the EU” that is not “dissimilar” to the U.K., with “a strong global-trading, outward-looking history,” his spokesman, Jean-Christophe Gray, told reporters in London. The Sun newspaper reported last week that the speech will be made in The Hague.
“The beating heart of Britain is, we know we need to be in Europe, because we are a trading nation,” Cameron told ITV. “But we’re not happy with every aspect at the moment -- there’s too much interference. People want that to be fixed, they want more of a say. We shouldn’t be frightened to involve the British people in that.”
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, whose Liberal Democrats have traditionally supported the EU, said a referendum should be held if the EU re-writes its rulebook to accommodate closer integration among the 17 countries that use the euro.
“If there is a new treaty and that involves significant transfer of power then, of course, people should have a say,” Clegg told BBC Radio 4 in London today. “We do not know yet whether that will manifest itself in a new treaty. We do not know if that new treaty will ask new things of the United Kingdom.”
There is a tradition of British prime ministers going to the continent to make speeches on Europe. Tony Blair went to Warsaw in 2000 to make the case for an expanded EU. Winston Churchill called for a United States of Europe in Zurich in 1946 to rebuild the continent in the aftermath of World War II.
Margaret Thatcher set out her European position in a speech in Bruges, Belgium, in 1988. That address is so idolized by Conservatives that one of the pressure groups against further EU integration is named after it -- The Bruges Group.
Cameron has promises his speech for months. On Dec. 10, he joked to journalists that it was a “tantric approach to policy making -- it’ll be even better when it does eventually come.”
The prime minister is under pressure from two sides. Many in his party argue that a more hostile approach to Europe would be popular with voters and Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne last week raised the stakes by warning that the EU had to change if Britain is to remain a member. The Tories’ Liberal Democrat coalition allies and foreign politicians say Cameron risks damaging the economy and Britain’s global influence.
Philip Gordon, assistant secretary of state for European Affairs in President Barack Obama’s administration, last week warned Britain against a referendum, saying the U.K. staying in the EU is important to U.S. interests.
Gunther Krichbaum, an ally of Chancellor Angela Merkel and the head of Germany’s European Affairs committee, weighed in to suggest it was a bad approach to negotiations. “You cannot create a political future if you are blackmailing other states,” he told the Guardian newspaper.
Meanwhile, Business Secretary Vince Cable, a Liberal Democrat, described talk of a referendum as “a massive disruption and deeply unhelpful” at a time when the government is trying to persuade companies to invest in the U.K.
Cameron yesterday defended his decision to raise the question of Britain’s membership.
“This debate is happening anyway,” he told the BBC. “We have a choice as politicians: do we get out there, lead the debate, make a choice that I think will be right for Britain and right for Europe, or hide your head in the sand?”
His hand is being forced by pressure within his own party amid growing support from 2010 Tory voters for the U.K. Independence Party, which advocates withdrawal from the EU. Recent polls put UKIP on about 10 percent support.
Britain’s relationship with Europe has been the subject of two record-breaking Conservative rebellions since Cameron took office in 2010. On Oct. 31, the premier suffered his first House of Commons defeat after 53 of his lawmakers defied him to vote for a real cut in the EU budget, rather than the freeze he’d said he was seeking. A year earlier, 81 Conservative lawmakers voted for a referendum on pulling out of the EU.
Polls suggest voters wouldn’t support withdrawal from the EU in the referendum Cameron proposed. A YouGov Plc survey of 1,995 adults conducted Jan. 10-11 found more people saying life outside the EU would be worse than better. And while they initially said they would vote for Britain to leave by 42 percent to 36 percent, asked how they would vote if he had conducted a renegotiation and was advocating staying in, they said they would support membership by 50 percent to 25 percent.