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1st Mar 2021

UK leaders trade blows after call for early EU referendum

  • Cameron: 'Let's get stuck in there. Let's hold a negotiation' (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

UK political leaders traded blows about the merits of holding an EU referendum after one of the country’s business leaders called for it to take place as early as 2016.

Politicians touted their ideas to business leaders at the annual conference of the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) on Tuesday (10 February) ahead of May’s general elections.

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BCC chairman John Longworth told delegates that a referendum on EU membership should be held within 12 months of the election ”in order to avoid two years of uncertainty” - a surprise bonus for David Cameron, who has promised to renegotiate the UK’s membership terms followed by an ‘in/out’ referendum in 2017 if his Conservative party wins May’s elections.

In his speech,Cameron said Longworth’s remarks demonstrated that businesses supports his stance on renegotiating the UK’s EU membership.

"They are saying it is quite right to have a strategy that gives Britain the best chance of staying in a reformed European Union that works in our interest and that is what my approach is," Cameron said.

"Let's get stuck in there. Let's hold a negotiation. Let's deal with those things that are holding Britain back, and then let's have this put to the British public in an in/out referendum".

Neither Labour or the Liberal Democrats support a referendum ahead of the elections, which promise to be the closest and most fragmented in living memory.

Polls put Labour and the Conservatives almost neck-and-neck on between 30-33 percent, with the anti-EU UK Independence party in third place on around 17 percent.

The BCC represents nearly 100,000 firms which employ more than 5 million people in Britain. Longworth has publicly stated that he supports the UK’s continued membership of the EU.

However, unlike Cameron, who wants to repatriate powers from Brussels back to the UK parliament, Longworth told delegates that “more than any repatriation of powers the next government must set out what it will do to protect the United Kingdom against the prospect of being in a club where all the decisions are made by, and for, the eurozone.”

For his part, Labour’s finance spokesman Ed Balls told the conference that Britain “walking out of the EU is the biggest risk to our economy in the next decade.”

Labour has come under attack from a number of business leaders in recent weeks for being anti-enterprise.

Bu it argues that its support for the UK’s continued EU status - which most businesses support - and opposition to a "destabilising" referendum, demonstrates its business-friendly credentials.

“Every comment by senior Cabinet ministers saying they would be happy or relaxed to see us walk out, and every hint that a referendum could happen as early as next year … only adds to the uncertainty and risk for British businesses," Balls told delegates.

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