LONDON – Laying out a vision that could lead his country out of the European Union, Prime Minister David Cameron vowed Wednesday to negotiate a new relationship with the 27-nation trading bloc and put Britain’s continued membership to a national vote.
In possibly the most important speech of his premiership so far, Cameron said many of his compatriots were fed up with growing centralization of power in Brussels and that a new deal was necessary. He pledged to try to win concessions for Britain and then let voters pass judgment, by the end of 2017, in a referendum on whether they wanted to remain in the EU.
A withdrawal could jeopardize Britain’s access to European markets and diminish its influence on the world stage, particularly its role as a bridge to Europe for the United States. But Cameron called the status quo unacceptable to too many Britons and said a fresh mandate from voters to stay in the EU was imperative.
“It is time for the British people to have their say. It is time for us to settle this question about Britain and Europe,” Cameron said. “Democratic consent for the EU in Britain is now wafer-thin. … That is why I am in favor of having a referendum.”
He has to win another term as prime minister first, in an election due in 2015. His Conservative Party will run on a platform making a plebiscite an immediate priority upon a return to power, Cameron said.
Such a referendum would be the first time in about 40 years that Britons had a direct say on their status within Europe, a topic that has inspired deep ambivalence in this island nation for decades. Winston Churchill used to say about Europe that Britain was “in it” but not “of it”; the country’s EU entrance in 1973 was a hand-wringing affair from the start.
Cameron emphasized his own support for Britain’s continued membership – albeit on more favorable terms – in the EU, which offers free movement of goods and people across the world’s biggest trading bloc, comprising 500 million people.
“I am not a British isolationist, but I do want a better deal for Britain,” he said. “I want the European Union to be a success, and I want a relationship between Britain and the European Union that keeps us in it.”
But he sidestepped the question of whether he would advocate withdrawal instead if he failed to extract concessions for Britain from other EU nations. He also failed to specify which powers he wants to reclaim from Brussels, though many Conservative lawmakers have been exasperated by European directives in areas such as social and employment policy.