British Prime Minister David Cameron yesterday promised to hold a referendum by the end of 2017 giving British people the choice of staying in or leaving the EU, if his party wins the next election.
In a long-awaited speech in London, Cameron said he wanted to renegotiate the terms of Britain’s troubled membership of the EU before putting the new agreement to the people in a vote.
British people would face a “very simple choice”: either to accept the outcome of the negotiations or to leave the EU altogether after four decades of membership.
Cameron pledged that if his party wins an outright victory in the general election in 2015, it would hold a referendum during the first half of the new five-year parliament, by the end of 2017.
He said disillusionment with the EU in Britain was “at an all-time high” and it was essential to reform the way it worked.
If such reforms were not ushered in, Britain could “drift” out of the 27-member bloc, he warned.
However, if he managed to secure terms that he was happy with, Cameron said he would campaign “heart and soul” for Britain to remain within the EU, which it joined in 1973.
He said the European bloc was grappling with problems in the eurozone, “a crisis of European competitiveness,” and that the gap between the EU and its citizens had “grown dramatically in recent years.”
“If we don’t address these challenges, the danger is that Europe will fail and the British people will drift towards the exit,” he added.
Cameron has faced intense pressure from the euroskeptic right wing of the Conservative Party to take a stand on Europe, an issue that has long divided the party.
Leading Conservative euroskeptic Daniel Hannan hailed the speech as “the most significant I’ve heard by a British prime minister in 40 years of [EU] membership.”
However, Cameron’s promise to hold a referendum drew immediate warnings from Britain’s main European partners.
“We can’t have Europe a la carte,” French Minister of Foreign Affairs Laurent Fabius said. “Imagine [that] the EU was a football club: Once you’ve joined up and you’re in this club, you can’t then say you want to play rugby.”
German Minister of Foreign Affairs Guido Westerwelle said Berlin wants Britain to be an “active” EU member, but that membership was an all-or-nothing proposition.
“Cherry-picking is not an option,” he said.
In a speech that he had originally planned to give last week, before the Algerian hostage crisis intervened, Cameron said his party would start renegotiations after the next election, provided it wins.