UK opposition leader to avoid 'bust-up' on Europe
By Honor Mahony
David Cameron, leader of the UK Conservative opposition, has abandoned talk of holding a referendum on the EU's latest treaty but has promised to seek repatriation of powers in key European Union policy areas should his party come to power next year.
In a speech as keenly watched in Brussels as among his own backbenchers, Mr Cameron said he would "not rush into some massive euro bust-up" and, in a pointed message to the most eurosceptic wing of the party - for whom Europe has long been a thoroughly divisive issue - he said he was not willing to "concoct a new pretext for a referendum."
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Instead, he made a series of other promises including repatriation of social and employment legislation; a strengthened opt-out from the Charter of Fundamental Rights and preventing EU judges from extending European jurisdiction over UK criminal law any further than currently is the case.
He also pledged that a referendum will be held on any future EU treaty as well as before joining the euro while a United Kingdom sovereignty bill will be introduced to underline that "ultimate authority" lies with the UK parliament. British law-makers should also have the last say over what he called a 'ratchet' clause, under which member states may agree to abolish their vetoes in an area without the need for a new treaty.
"I believe these things can stop Britain's relationship with the EU from heading in the wrong direction," said Mr Cameron, who is tipped to become prime minister after a general election next spring.
He was galvanised into making his position on Europe clear after the Czech Republic earlier this week ratified the Lisbon Treaty, a move that will allow it to go into force next month.
While the state of ratification was still in flux, the British Conservative had been making noises about holding a referendum on the treaty but had not been clear about what they would do if the treaty was already part of law.
The Conservative leader said he believed he would be able to negotiate what he called the "return of the powers", but said he will do so "firmly, patiently and respectfully." He also gave himself the "lifetime of a parliament" to achieve his pledges. That would give him five years, taking him up to 2013, the year when the EU will be negotiating its new multi-annual budget.
The speech was marked by a high degree of pragmatism designed to calm the most eurosceptic Conservatives and not rock the Brussels boat too much, but it is unclear how much will be achievable.
"It's hard to see how this would be possible without reopening the entire treaty negotiation process, and after the trouble they have had getting Lisbon through, there isn't the slightest chance of anyone in Brussels agreeing to that," said a comment piece in the anti-EU Daily Mail, referring to social and employment law and the rights charter pledge.
German centre-right MEP Elmar Brok wrote in the UK's Independent newspaper that he did not believe Mr Cameron would be able to pass "even the very first step" of the process needed to bring about these changes.
"Any change in the relationship would formally require a modification of those treaties, which means that this would first have to be unanimously supported by all EU member states. We would then have to organise comprehensive renegotiation on the nature, scope and the modalities of these new EU reforms," he pointed out.
Although Mr Cameron was careful not to take an overtly abrasive line on the EU, his party's position has already drawn negative comments.
French Europe minister Pierre Lellouche told the Guardian newspaper that the plans were "pathetic."
"It's just very sad to see Britain, so important in Europe, just cutting itself out from the rest and disappearing from the radar map."
Correction - The article previously referred to Edward Heathcoat Amory, a political commentator for the Daily Mail, as a Conservative MP. Apologies for this confusion.