• Cameron (c): the Amsterdam speech is being closely watched by EU countries and by the US (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

Cameron: referendum on EU opt-outs, not membership

17.01.13 @ 09:17

  1. By Andrew Rettman
  2. Andrew email

BRUSSELS - British leader David Cameron has given a foretaste of his big speech in Amsterdam on Friday (18 January) by saying he does not support an in/out referendum, but wants to renegotiate EU-UK relations.

Speaking during his regular question time in the House of Commons on Wednesday, he said: "I do not think it would be right for Britain to have an in/out referendum today, because we would be giving the British people a false choice."

But he added: "Throughout Europe, countries are looking at forthcoming treaty change and thinking: 'What can I do to maximise my national interest?' That is what the Germans will do. That is what the Spanish will do. That is what the British should do."

He indicated he will call for a referendum on EU relations, but that the question will be limited to whether British citizens support his plans for a UK opt-out on certain EU laws.

"Is it not in Britain's national interest to argue for changes which ... will strengthen and sort out the relationship between Britain and the European Union, and then to ask the British people for their consent?" he noted.

For his part, the centre-left opposition Labour party chief, Ed Miliband, said that any referendum plan risks opening a can of worms.

"Can he confirm that he is now giving the green light to Conservative cabinet ministers to campaign on different positions - on whether they are for or against being in the European Union?" he asked.

Other opposition MPs also voiced concerns.

"Thirty-nine people suspected of serious child sex offences who fled the country have been brought back to Britain quickly under the European arrest warrant ... many of the Prime Minister's backbenchers want to scrap the European arrest warrant," Labour's Robert Flello said.

"Millions of British women would be hit by the proposal ... to opt out of the EU law on equal pay," Labour's Hugh Bayley noted.

"A statement on Europe designed to be populist runs the risk of polarising this house, undermining key UK relations with America, confusing and alienating our friends and partners in Europe," Scottish SDLP party MP Margaret Ritchie added.

With the atmosphere heating up ahead of Friday, divisions on the EU in Cameron's own Conservative Party and in his Liberal Democrat coalition are also coming to light.

A large chunk of Tory MPs called the Fresh Start group has published a manifesto - endorsed by British foreign minister William Hague - calling for UK opt-outs from EU employment law, social policies, criminal law and EU regional funding structures.

The group also wants a UK "emergency brake" - a unilateral opt-out mechanism on future EU decisions, such as on financial markets, deemed to cause "significant harm" to British interests.

But Cameron's Liberal party business minister, Vince Cable, plans to say in a speech on Thursday that a UK opt-out referendum "would add to the sense of un­resolved crisis and weaken Britain’s ability to deliver more reform inside the EU," the Financial Times reports.

Meanwhile, EU countries have followed a recent US statement urging Cameron not to go too far.

"You cannot kind of pick the raisins out of the [EU] bun," Finnish Prime Minister Jyrki Katainen told Reuters in Brussels on Wednesday.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel's spokesman said in Berlin the same day: "We want an active and engaged Britain in the European Union." French EU affairs minister Bernard Cazeneuve said: "It is not in the interests of the single market to see the British leave. And the British know very well it is not in their interest to leave the single market."

With Cameron's Dutch venue apparently chosen due to The Netherlands' own reticence on EU integration and in an attempt to echo Margaret Thatcher's famous Bruges speech, The Hague also distanced itself from London on Wednesday.

"The Netherlands is not in favour of opt-outs - we have never been," Dutch foreign minister Frans Timmermans told Reuters.

The then Tory leader, Thatcher, said in Bruges, Belgium, in 1988: "We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain, only to see them reimposed at a European level, with a European superstate exercising a new dominance from Brussels."