One eye on the exit in Cameron's risky speech on EU

Conservative prime minister may be taking a huge gamble on Britain's membership of the European Union, its biggest trading partner

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 17 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 17 January, 2013, 4:11am


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British Prime Minister David Cameron gives a long-awaited speech in the Netherlands tomorrow that could push his country towards the European Union's exit door and put his own position at risk.

The speech promises to be one of the most important by a British leader since the second world war, following in the footsteps of previous premiers who have gone to the continent to deliver speeches on Europe.

In Amsterdam, Cameron is expected to set out plans to renegotiate Britain's membership with the EU and then allow British voters to vote on the new terms in a referendum after the general election in 2015.

The Conservative leader has said that he wants Britain to remain in the European Union, which is Britain's biggest export partner, while wresting back some powers from Brussels. But it is a huge gamble, as a "no" vote in any referendum on new terms could precipitate a "Brexit" from the EU, with far reaching effects for the 27-nation bloc.

Cameron defended his plans on Monday, saying that a straight in-out referendum on membership would be a "false choice" and adding: "I'm confident we will get the changes that we want."

Yet the issue has become a huge headache for him as he tries to balance the demands of an increasingly eurosceptic Conservative party and British public with those of his European partners. The "Fresh Start" faction of eurosceptic Tory MPs was due yesterday to issue its own manifesto of preferred changes to the relationship with Europe, adding to the pressure on Cameron.

The premier's speech was repeatedly put back over the last six months, then suddenly brought forward from Tuesday after it emerged it would clash with ceremonies marking 50 years of post-war reconciliation between France and Germany.

In a further sign of trouble, the Netherlands' prime minister, Mark Rutte, will not attend the speech being made on his country's soil, although he will meet Cameron for talks earlier in the day.

Cameron has tried to win allies for his position and embarked on a round of telephone calls to European leaders over the past week. But there is likely to be little sympathy for Britain's demands for special treatment when the bloc is still recovering from the crisis in the euro zone, of which Britain is not part.

"Let's be honest about it: renegotiation means either a 'Brexit' or the end of the single market and in fact of the EU," Belgium's former prime minister Guy Verhofstadt, now a member of the European parliament, said on Tuesday.

International allies including the US have criticised Cameron's plans while business leaders have warned that the uncertainty could harm Britain's economy.

Domestically, Cameron will be walking in the shadow of previous British prime ministers.

Winston Churchill called for a "United States of Europe" in Zurich in 1946, but Britain was not allowed to join what was then the European Economic Community until 1973.

Margaret Thatcher, the "Iron Lady", went to Bruges in 1988 to say that Britain "does not dream of some cosy, isolated existence on the fringes of the European Community" while Tony Blair spoke in Warsaw to call for enlargement of the EU.

But Cameron's strategy means he must secure the repatriation of powers if he is not to appear weak - and then after that must still win a referendum on the new terms, likely in 2018.

Failure to win the referendum would not only torpedo his own leadership but would also point Britain towards an EU exit, as voters would effectively have failed to back Cameron's vision for Britain's place in Europe.