Labour Party leader Ed Miliband ruled out a referendum on U.K. membership of the European Union unless the bloc requests more powers, challenging Prime Minister David Cameron on one his core policies.
In a speech in London today, Miliband said that if elected next year he’s determined to reform the EU. While he’d guarantee an in-or-out vote if the U.K.’s national Parliament is asked to hand over more control to the 28-nation bloc, that eventuality is “unlikely,” Miliband said.
The next Labour government would legislate for “a lock that guarantees that there will be no transfer of powers without an in/out referendum,” he said, adding that “I believe it is unlikely this lock will be used in the next Parliament” in 2015-2020.
The speech signals that Europe is a key area of contention as the main U.K. parties prepare for national elections in May 2015. Cameron wants to put Britain’s continued EU membership to a referendum in late 2017 following a renegotiation of membership terms if he’s re-elected, while his Liberal Democrat coalition partner is making a pitch for pro-EU voters.
“It’s not a proposal for an in-out referendum,” Cameron told reporters en route to a visit to Jerusalem today. “This is a policy clearly designed by a committee that couldn’t decide what to do.”
He said if Britain votes Labour into power next year, there will be no referendum. “It couldn’t be clearer: you get Miliband and you don’t get a choice,” he said.
Cameron is under pressure from his own Tories and the popularity of the U.K. Independence Party, which campaigns for withdrawal from the EU, to cede yet more ground on the matter. In January, one Tory faction called on the premier to give Parliament new powers to veto EU laws.
The premier “is caught between the demands of his backbenchers, many of whom want to leave the European Union, and the reality about what he knows could be negotiable with our European partners,” Miliband said. “He cannot tell us what he is negotiating for, because if he does it will be clear that either he will fail to satisfy his party or set demands in Europe that he will inevitably fail to achieve.”
If Cameron were to be re-elected, he would be distracted by the European debate and would fail to focus on the economy, according to Miliband.
The Labour leader still held out the possibility of a referendum, saying that a further transfer of powers to Brussels remains possible given “the history of the EU, as well as uncertainty about precisely what an integrating euro zone might involve.”
Miliband’s positioning was not welcomed by all Labour members of Parliament, some of whom are also under pressure from UKIP in their districts. His stance has been criticized by Labour lawmakers Graham Stringer and John Mann. Mann told Sky News today that both Labour supporters and swing voters in his district “unequivocally” want a referendum.
In a question-and-answer session after his speech at the London Business School, Miliband said the “vast majority” of his party would follow his lead.
Simon Walker, the director general of the Institute of Directors, a business lobby group, said in an e-mailed statement today that “to be taken seriously” Labour “must set out exactly how they plan to make the EU more competitive, more accountable and more relevant.”