PM opens door to EU referendum – but does he mean business?
David Cameron makes landmark move towards a referendum – but only when ‘the time is right’
DAVID CAMERON has bowed to pressure from Conservative backbenchers and opened the door to a referendum on Britain’s continued membership of the European Union. He remains opposed to a straight "in or out" referendum, but in an article for The Sunday Telegraph he suggests he would be prepared to offer a vote – some time in the future - on whether the relationship with Europe should be reduced to a simpler trading agreement.
WHAT DOES CAMERON SAY, IN A NUTSHELL?
Britain is in danger of being swamped by EU legislation and bureaucracy that he – and, he believes, the majority of the British people - would like to see scrapped. Membership of Europe currently involves "too much cost, too much bureaucracy, too much meddling in issues that belong to nation states or civic society of individuals". Furthermore, the single currency crisis is driving a process that will see Eurozone countries take "more and more steps" towards fuller integration. He concludes: "two words 'Europe' and 'referendum' can go together."
HOW SOON COULD IT HAPPEN?
Not very. Cameron's article makes it clear that the Eurozone crisis needs to be resolved. He also acknowledges that "the coalition parties will have different views on this" - in other words, it won’t wash with the pro-Europe Lib Dems. This is therefore an issue that is likely to dominate the 2015 general election. If there is to be a referendum, it will during in the next parliament and dependent on the Tories winning an outright majority in 2015.
IS THIS ANOTHER U-TURN?
Sort of. It comes shortly after Cameron appeared to rule out a referendum at a news conference following last week’s EU summit. It would not be the right thing to do, he said then. According to the Sunday Telegraph, Cameron’s advisers say that the Brussels comments were misrepresentative, and that today’s article sets out his "true thinking" - namely that a referendum is possible when the time is right.
WILL IT PACIFY EUROSCEPTIC TORIES?
Up to a point. Last week 100 Tory MPs wrote to Cameron demanding legislation for a future referendum and were alarmed at the PM’s apparent refusal to consider it. Now Douglas Carswell has told The Sunday Times that Cameron’s article shows “the first significant crack in Whitehall thinking for the past 20 or 30 years". However, Carswell and other Eurosceptics are more likely to be persuaded by Liam Fox’s much tougher line...
WHAT DOES LIAM FOX ADVOCATE?
The former Tory defence secretary is due to make a speech on Monday in which he will press for the immediate renegotiation of EU membership terms. If that proves unsatisfactory, then a referendum should be held with the government recommending a "pull out" vote. According to the Sunday Telegraph, Fox will say: "For my own part, life outside the EU holds no terror."
WHAT ABOUT THE LIB DEMS?
The pro-Europe Lib Dems believe Cameron’s article is merely addressing internal Tory divisions. A party source told the BBC: "The Liberal Democrats do not believe that there is much public appetite at the moment for an abstract discussion about a referendum on an undefined question at an unspecified time in a future parliament."
WHAT DO THE PAPERS SAY?
The Sunday Telegraph says Cameron will have to work hard to persuade the nation that he means business. And he needs to do so “if Britain is not to become subject to those Eurocrats who aspire to run an entire continent as a giant municipality.” The Mail on Sunday welcomes Cameron's move, despite his article being "deliberately vague" in terms of timing. The Mail warns, too, against Cameron failing to deliver. His party "will punish him brutally if he later disappoints them".