British referendum on EU unlikely before 2020 if Labour wins power, says Ed Miliband

Opposition leader promises vote on membership only if more powers shift to Brussels, following Prime Minister David Cameron's pledge to hold poll by end of 2017

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 12 March, 2014, 11:37am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 12 March, 2014, 11:37am

A future Labour government would hold a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union (EU) before 2020 only if more powers were transferred to Brussels, party leader Ed Miliband has revealed.

Prime Minister David Cameron has promised to try to reach a new settlement with the EU before holding a referendum by the end of 2017, provided he wins the election in May next year.

But Miliband’s calibrated referendum pledge means that if the opposition Labour wins power, or if it has to share power with the Liberal Democrats, there would be little prospect of a vote on Britain’s EU membership this decade.

“I am announcing that the next Labour government will legislate for a new lock – there would be no transfer of powers from the UK to the EU without a referendum on our continued membership of the EU,” Miliband wrote in the Financial Times.

“There are no current proposals – from either the EU or any member state – for a further transfer of powers from Britain,” he said. “It is unlikely there will be any such proposals in the next parliament.”

By offering the prospect of a distant referendum, Miliband is trying to weaken Cameron’s charge that Labour is afraid of giving British voters the chance to have their say on Europe.

He also intends to underscore the risks of Cameron’s strategy, which some investors fear could allow Britain to slip out of the EU.

Miliband, whose party currently leads in opinion polls, said Cameron’s “arbitrary” timetable for an EU vote would distract from dealing with Britain’s economic challenges and that Cameron had no support in European capitals for his renegotiation.

Cameron, who is under pressure from eurosceptics in his Conservative party and the anti-EU UK Independence Party, says Britain can reshape its EU ties, though he has so far garnered only limited backing for his plans among fellow leaders.

Miliband said the Conservative Party’s “damaging obsession” with Europe was unsettling businesses, while the Labour Party wanted to work for reform from within the 28-member bloc.

“Britain’s future lies in the EU,” Miliband said.

Miliband used the waving of Europe’s azure-and-golden-starred-flag by some Ukrainian protesters in Kiev to argue that voters should not forget the EU symbolised peace and prosperity for many after centuries of European strife.

If Britain’s future in Europe is to be secured, Europe needs to work better for Britain
Ed Miliband, Labour leader

But the 44-year-old Labour leader also cautioned that the EU’s reputation was at a low ebb. And he said EU leaders should do more to build a better economy and address voter anxiety over immigration.

“If Britain’s future in Europe is to be secured, Europe needs to work better for Britain,” he wrote in the Financial Times. "Britain needs to work more effectively for change within the EU.”

He added: “Europe should also do more to address anxieties about immigration.”

Opinion polls show about 40 per cent of British voters want to stay in the EU, while about the same proportion want to leave.

But the polls also show widespread hostility to immigration and dissatisfaction with established political parties.

Miliband said a Labour government would find it considerably easier to achieve reform inside the EU without having to attempt to convince 27 other EU member states to rewrite a European treaty.

He said German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the EU’s most powerful leader, had refused to support Cameron’s plans for fundamental European reform during a visit to London last month.

Merkel, who wants Britain to stay in the EU, does favour some EU treaty change. But she sees treaty change as much more limited in scope than Cameron and as a way of deepening euro zone integration.

“She explained that he needs unanimous backing to get a new treaty. It is clear he has none,” Miliband said.