Cameron's referendum vow: it's blackmail, says Europe

Jan 23, 2013

The PM scores political points at home, but European media say his EU speech is a 'threat'

DAVID CAMERON has delighted Eurosceptics, strengthened the unity of his party and "thrown down the gauntlet" to Labour by promising an in/out referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU, says the BBC’s political correspondent Iain Watson.

But the PM's "long-awaited" speech is just the start of a lengthy process, not an end point and his gambit relies on two outcomes which are far from assured, Watson says. Critically, he must win the 2015 election with a clear majority and his European partners "must be willing to renegotiate Britain’s relationship".

The latter outcome sounds unlikely if the reaction of European media to the speech is any gauge. The Spanish paper El Pais said Cameron had "opened Pandora's Box in Europe" and his words sounded "more like a threat than a commitment". French paper Le Figaro said Europe cannot be taken "a la carte" and Germany's Die Welt said Europe should not be "blackmailed".

What Cameron will do if the negotiations with his EU partners "deliver less than he would like", is unclear says Watson. Would he still proceed with a referendum, still campaign to stay in the EU or "defect to the ‘No’ camp?"

Regardless of the hurdles the PM faces, no-one doubts the importance of today’s speech. Roland Watson, political editor at The Times, calls it the "pivotal speech of his premiership" and says Cameron is prepared to "gamble his personal legacy" on resolving an issue that has "bedevilled" his party since the last referendum on Europe in 1975.

The Guardian says the long wait for the speech was worthwhile because it delivered "a big moment" and its message was "finely nuanced". On the one hand it was "the most Eurosceptic speech ever delivered by a British prime minister," the paper says. But it was also one of the most pro-European speeches Cameron has ever given because it was "bursting at the seams" with references to his fervent belief that the UK should remain part of Europe.

Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Tim Stanley calls the contents of the speech a "game-changing proposal" that will be "music" to a Eurosceptic’s ears. "With one speech," says Stanley, the PM has toughened up his conservative credentials, morphing from "Ted Heath to Margaret Thatcher".

But Cameron’s commitment to a referendum is a political decision not a moral one, says Stanley. He has "seen the poll numbers" and understands that the "UKIP rebellion" threatens his chances at the next election. As a result, he’s "stolen" their biggest issue.

The Guardian’s Patrick Wintour admits the speech will back Labour into a corner by casting Cameron as the only leader offering voters a say on Europe. But he says pollsters "disagree" on whether the referendum will actually generate votes at the 2015 election, with many arguing that the economy will continue to be the central issue.

The referendum pledge also poses risks to a traditionally risk-averse PM, says Wintour. Britain is gambling its position as the "low-tax gateway" to Europe and the effect on investment in the UK is far from certain.

There is a chance, says Wintour, that the play-it-safe PM will live to rue the day he "acted out of character".

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The polling in a few weeks will be quite telling on this. Having said that UKIPs recent rise has been on the back of redefining marriage and general Lib Dem policy making not the EU.

It's going to screw it up, Merkel post election will tell him take a run and jump