Conservative Westcountry MPs have heaped praise on David Cameron for promising an “in-out” EU referendum.
The Prime Minister announced yesterday that his party’s 2015 election manifesto will seek a mandate to negotiate a “new settlement” for Britain, which will be put to voters in a referendum by the mid-point of the next Parliament in around 2017.
But the plan brought divisions within the coalition government to the fore, as Liberal Democrat Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said renegotiation was “not in the national interest” and would create damaging uncertainty for business.
Tory MPs were delighted, cheering from the backbenches as he arrived at the House of Commons after making the pledge in a long-awaited speech.
Gary Streeter, Conservative MP for South West Devon, had previously urged Mr Cameron to push for a new relationship with European institutions amid fears the eurosceptic UK Independence Party (UKIP) was eroding the Tory vote in the Westcountry.
Mr Streeter, a minister in John Major’s government, said: “It was a significant speech. This is exactly what I said he should do.
“We need a new way forward with the UK outside the eurozone, and once we know what that is it is clear we must put it to the people in a referendum.”
He added: “The way to combat UKIP is to have a good policy on Europe. Now we have that policy. People now know a vote for UKIP is a wasted vote, and if they vote for the Conservatives at the next election they will get an in-out referendum.”
George Eustice, Tory MP for Camborne and Redruth, who leads the Fresh Start group of eurosceptic MPs, said Mr Cameron’s speech in central London was “the most important speech that a British Prime Minister has delivered on the EU since we joined 40 years ago”.
Mr Eustice, a former Press aide to the Conservative leader, said: “For far too long the public have been lectured about Europe and told that they must just accept whatever is dished out but David Cameron has called time on that sort of defeatism.
“He set out a clear British vision for the future of the EU where powers are returned, regulations scrapped and where national parliaments call the shots.
“At long last, Britain has a Prime Minister who is determined to get this country’s voice heard and the public will have their say in a referendum.”
Central Devon Conservative MP Anne Marie Morris welcomed the promise, saying Britain’s relationship with the EU “has changed beyond all recognition since” since the last 1975 referendum.
But critics claimed Mr Cameron has been buffeted by the right-wing of his own party, and his pledge is to quell party unrest and will serve to endanger the economy.
Stephen Gilbert, Liberal Democrat MP for St Austell and Newquay, said: “The biggest danger in all this is that while the Tory party fall out amongst themselves about their favourite issue the businesses who want to create jobs think that Britain’s future is too uncertain to consider investing here. It’s like booking an appointment to cut off your nose to spite your face.”
And Exeter’s Labour MP Ben Bradshaw said: “Promising a referendum at an unknown time, on an unknown outcome of an uncertain renegotiation is not pursuing the national interest but about Tory divisions and the perceived threat from UKIP. What Britain and the rest of Europe need over the next few years are policies for growth not this massive distraction and uncertainty, which will hit investment in Britain.”
In his speech in London, Mr Cameron said he wanted a new treaty to reform the EU for all its members, but was ready to demand a renegotiated status for Britain alone if other nations did not agree. Draft legislation will be drawn up by the Conservative Party ahead of the election, and will be enacted by the end of 2015 if Tories win, to pave the way for renegotiation and referendum within the next two years, he said.
But there were immediate questions over whether other EU states would be prepared to agree special terms for the UK.
In his address, Mr Cameron said a new EU treaty should be driven by the five key principles of competitiveness, flexibility, return of powers to national governments, democratic accountability and fairness.
Crucially, he said it was time for the EU to ditch the universal commitment to “ever closer union” and accept that members can decide for themselves how deeply they want to integrate.
The completion of the single market should be Europe’s “driving mission”, while the EU should be required to justify the expansion of the Commission and other institutions.
“It is time for the British people to have their say,” Mr Cameron said. He added “nothing should be off the table” when it comes to returning powers from Brussels to national governments over issues like the environment, social affairs, crime and working hours.
So will Cameron be able to renegotiate our EU membership?
Q: Are we now certain to have a referendum?
A: No. A referendum remains far from certain. Crucially, it depends on the Conservatives winning the general election scheduled for May 2015. If Mr Cameron secures an overall majority, the way will be clear for him to attempt a re-negotiation of Britain’s membership and put it to voters by the end of 2017. But neither Labour nor the Liberal Democrats are signed up to that goal.
Q: What if there is another hung Parliament?
A: Mr Cameron has indicated that a commitment to a referendum is a “red line” for him in any coalition negotiations, insisting that “if I am Prime Minister this will happen”. Liberal Democrats have previously argued in favour of an in/out referendum in the case of treaty changes, leaving them some room for compromise. But this announcement raises the bar significantly for any future coalition deal.
Q: Will David Cameron be able to renegotiate UK membership in the way he suggests?
A: Most EU nations want Britain to stay in, and there is a degree of sympathy for his frustration with excessive bureaucracy and sclerotic decision-making. But with attention in European capitals focused on rescuing the single currency, there is little appetite for new treaties and institutional reform.
Q: Will Mr Cameron vote for Britain to stay in the EU?
A: He has said he will campaign “with all my heart and soul” for continued membership if his renegotiation ploy succeeds. But he ducked repeated questions from Labour leader Ed Miliband yesterday over which way he would vote if the re-negotiation fails.
Q: What does it mean for EU cash pumped into Cornwall and Devon?
A: It is unclear whether repatriating EU regional policy is a priority. If it happened, the Open Europe think-tank says Cornwall and the Scillies would get £207 million more than at present under the Convergence programme.