'It's time to open the door and consider a referendum': Cameron to give Britain a vote on Europe
British sovereignty to be restored and multinational government to be forced into retreat? The crackup of the EU would be a near-fatal blow to the world-government freaks
David Cameron paved the way for a historic popular vote on Britain’s role in Europe yesterday by indicating he is ‘opening the door’ to a referendum.
Voters could be asked if they want the UK to stay in or out of the European Union, or to sever many of its existing ties with Brussels.
The Prime Minister is gearing up to resolve the matter once and for all – but not yet. He is considering turning the next Election, due in 2015, into a vote on Britain’s membership of the EU – or holding a referendum afterwards if he is still in No 10.
Mr Cameron believes it is too early to decide the crucial question to be put to voters: whether it be a straight ‘in or out’ choice, or a proposal to grab back some of the powers lost to Brussels bureaucrats.
And he believes it would be a mistake to hold such a vote before the dust settles over the euro crisis.
A source close to the Prime Minister said: ‘It is time to open the door on this matter and consider a referendum. It could either be a standalone referendum or it could be part of the Conservative manifesto at the next Election.’
Explaining why Mr Cameron has not yet decided on the wording of the question to be put to the nation, the source added: ‘Now is the wrong time when Europe is in flux and the whole continent is changing before our eyes.
‘We need to see where everything ends up before we consult the British people.’
Mr Cameron’s hand has also been forced by the financial crisis in the eurozone, which is forcing member countries to negotiate ever-closer ties.
The accelerated integration is likely to lead to full-scale treaty renegotiations in the coming years.
Although cynics will describe the referendum as another Government U-turn following the Budget measures such as the ‘pasty tax’ and the aborted 3p petrol duty, the pledge is the latest evidence that Mr Cameron is increasingly turning his attention to political life after the Coalition.
If he does call an referendum, it is almost certain that arch-europhile Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg would be on opposite sides to Mr Cameron.
Recent polls show a majority of voters want a referendum, and a significant number are ready to turn their backs on the EU completely. However, the result would not be certain.
In the run-up to the last referendum on Europe in 1975, surveys suggested a ‘No’ vote, but in the event, the public decided against going back on Britain’s decision two years earlier to join what was then known as the Common Market.
Mr Cameron’s pledge comes in the face of intense pressure from Tory backbenchers to give the public a vote.
Last week, 100 Tory MPs – more than half of all backbench Conservatives – sent a letter to the Prime Minister which argued that there was ‘a consistent majority in this country who believe that the EU meddles too much in our everyday lives, that the regulation on our businesses is too burdensome, and that the cost of membership is far too high’.
They also pointed out that the EU is ‘very different’ from the Common Market that Britain originally signed up to – and that no one under the age of 55 has had a vote on the nation’s membership.
The picture appeared confused on Friday when Mr Cameron emerged from a marathon Brussels summit on the euro crisis to say: ‘I completely understand why some people want an in/out referendum – some people just want to say, “Stop the bus, I want to get off.”
‘I completely understand that, but I don’t share that view. I don’t think it’s the right thing to do. There are other things I would like us to get out of. That’s the trouble with the in/out – it only gives you two options.’
Newspapers interpreted the remarks as a sign that Mr Cameron had ruled out a vote on the UK’s membership of the EU, while Peter Bone, one of the signatories to the backbenchers’ letter, said it showed that Mr Cameron was ‘on the wrong side of the argument’.
Furthermore, Ministers were increasingly worried that Labour leader Ed Miliband might outflank Mr Cameron by pledging a referendum if Labour won power.
Mr Cameron has hardened his stance in an attempt to seize back the initiative.
In addition, Mr Cameron faces a growing Election threat from the anti-EU UK Independence Party, which has overtaken the Liberal Democrats in some opinion polls.
Worryingly for the PM, many eurosceptic Tory voters are switching to UKIP and its populist leader Nigel Farage. There are also persistent rumours that some Tory MPs could defect to Mr Farage’s party.
More than 80 Tory MPs defied Whips to demand a referendum on Europe during a major Commons rebellion last year.
Government insiders say the most likely outcome is a 2015 Tory manifesto pledge seeking approval to renegotiate the terms of British membership of the UK if Mr Cameron wins the Election.
This could see Brussels bureaucrats stripped of their power to decide legal, social and employment rights in this country.
Alternatively, he could promise to hold a referendum along the same lines – or offer a straight in/out vote – if he is returned to power.
By then, it is possible that the EU landscape could have changed beyond recognition – and public opinion with it. Greece is already teetering on the edge of leaving the single currency bloc, and there is speculation that Spain, Italy and even France could follow it in the coming years.