U.K. Labour Drops Opposition to Referendum on EU Membership

Interim Labour Party Leader Harriet Harman
Interim Labour Party leader Harriet Harman. Photographer: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

The U.K. Labour Party dropped its opposition to holding a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union, reversing a position it held before the general election.

“There doesn’t seem to be the public appetite for us to man the barricades against a referendum which appears to be inevitably going to happen,” interim party leader Harriet Harman said in an interview on the BBC’s “Andrew Marr Show” on Sunday. “So we’re saying we’re going to vote for the referendum bill and then get into the big questions of for and against Europe.”

Prime Minister David Cameron led his Conservatives to an unexpected outright majority in the May 7 vote after making a campaign pledge to hold an in/out referendum on the U.K,’s EU membership. Then Labour leader Ed Miliband opposed holding that, saying the U.K. is better off in the 28-nation bloc.

Miliband stepped down as leader after his party slipped to its worst electoral defeat since 1987, and Harman will lead the party until a leadership election in September.

Harman said the party wants to see some reforms around benefits and tax credits given to EU migrants, aligning herself with some of the changes that Cameron is seeking from the bloc. Cameron on Friday had his first face-to-face meetings with EU leaders since the election, giving him a chance to begin arguing the case for treaty changes that he says are needed to satisfy the British public.

Cameron on Friday said the discussions with EU partners “will require patience and tenacity,” while expressing confidence he can secure a deal. Business Secretary Sajid Javid today said on the same program as Harman that priorities include cutting red tape for business and ensuring “we’re not part of a commitment for an ever closer union.”

‘Concentrate the Minds’

“The fact that we’re having this referendum and that the British people have voted for a straightforward in/out referendum before the end of 2017 helps to concentrate the minds now of our European partners, so they will take us seriously on this issue,” Javid said.

Labour would also like to see a “deepening” of the EU’s single market, especially for services industries, the party’s EU spokesman, Pat McFadden, said Sunday in an interview on Sky News’s “Murnaghan” program. Even so, he said: “I can’t see circumstances where we would recommend a no-vote.”

“It’s not inconsistent to say that we recognize that our future is better in Europe than outside of Europe but we want to see Europe change,” Harman said. “All around Europe they have got to address the question that people think Europe is too centralized, insufficiently accountable and insufficiently in touch.”

EU Exit

Harman and Labour’s spokesman on foreign affairs, Hilary Benn, wrote about the party’s new stance in the Sunday Times newspaper, saying “the Labour Party does not want to see the U.K. stumble inadvertently towards EU exit.”

“We will do much better as a nation if we stay in,” they wrote. “Separation will make it harder to tackle the big challenges that require international co-operation to make progress.”

Cameron has pledged to hold the vote by the end of 2017, while indicating he’d like to hold it sooner if the talks on treaty changes make sufficient progress. Business leaders as well as France and Germany have also indicated they’d favor an earlier vote.

“We would be on our own if we were outside Europe,” Harman said. “We would be a small country outside of those big continental building blocks around the globe.”

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