U.K. Businesses Reject EU Alternatives as Lawmakers Vote

The U.K. should reject the Norwegian and Swiss models of engaging with the European Union, the Confederation of British Industry said as lawmakers prepared to vote today to set up a referendum on EU membership.

The analysis of the two countries’ positions, often cited as an alternative by opponents of British membership of the 28-nation bloc, was published as the House of Commons debates a Conservative bill today that would guarantee a plebiscite by the end of 2017.

“Norway and Switzerland simply don’t appear to have set-ups the U.K. should aspire to,” the chief policy director of the London-based CBI, Katja Hall, said in an e-mailed statement. “They are half-way houses on the margins of Europe with no influence over the market rules under which they operate. Norway still pays the bills and has as much of a say on the single market as Liechtenstein.”

Prime Minister David Cameron has instructed his Conservative Party to back the bill, which was introduced by rank-and-file Tory lawmaker James Wharton. The proposal can’t be put forward as government legislation because the Liberal Democrats, the junior partner in the coalition, oppose it.

Cameron was in the chamber today for the debate, along with Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne and Foreign Secretary William Hague. The Liberal Democrats and opposition Labour Party regard the debate as a political stunt and most of their lawmakers stayed away, meaning the bill is almost certain to pass its second reading today.

Political Capital

The Tories have sought to make political capital out of Labour’s failure to support the bill by accusing the party of refusing to give voters a choice.

Cameron, who says Britain’s membership is good for business, has pledged an in-out referendum after Britain has had a chance to renegotiate its relationship with the EU following the next election in 2015. He is seeking to repatriate some powers and streamline decision-making as part of an overhaul of the union.

“We should negotiate to get the right deal, to understand what the future of the European Union might mean,” Wharton told the House of Commons today. “The British people deserve a say on this and they should be given a real choice.”

Cameron, who hosted a barbecue for Conservative lawmakers last night, had the bill drafted after his own lawmakers indicated they would vote against his legislative program in the Commons unless a measure guaranteeing a referendum was included.

No Trust

“This bill isn’t being brought forward because Conservative back benchers trust the public,” Douglas Alexander, Labour’s foreign affairs spokesman told lawmakers. “This bill is being brought forward because Conservative backbenchers don’t trust the prime minister.”

The CBI’s Hall said efforts should center on how Britain can get more out of its membership of the EU.

“The debate now needs to focus on the best way to use our seat at the table and get the wheels turning on the kinds of reform that will make all of Europe more competitive,” Hall said.

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