UK Politics

Cameron rules out 'in or out' EU vote

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Media captionDavid Cameron says it is in Britain's interest to remain in the EU

David Cameron has said he will not back calls for a referendum on whether the UK should leave the European Union.

MPs are expected to hold a vote on the demand, after a petition calling for a referendum got the 100,000 signatures required for a Commons debate.

But the prime minister said his aim was to curb the EU's powers over the "longer term", and that it was the "wrong" time to try to force a change.

Foreign Secretary William Hague denied the Tories were split over Europe.

The comments come as the Conservatives begin their annual conference, in Manchester.

Attitudes to Europe among the party's grassroots have hardened in recent months as EU leaders - including Chancellor George Osborne - have spoken openly of the prospect of closer fiscal union to support the eurozone.

Eurosceptics see the crisis as an opportunity to halt further European integration.

'Trading nation'

MPs are expected to debate the call for an "in or out" referendum on the EU some time before Christmas, after Tory MP David Nuttall handed in a 100,000 signature petition calling for one.

The MP argued this should carry the same weight as an e-petition, which can trigger a Commons debate when it reaches 100,000 names under new rules.

The Commons Backbench Business Committee is due to meet next week to discuss whether, and when , to hold a debate.

Committee chairman, Labour MP Natascha Engel, told the BBC it has to wait until it is allocated slots in the Parliamentary timetable before deciding what issues should be debated by MPs.

Any vote would not be binding on the government, but ministers would face increasing pressure to act.

Ms Engel said a "clear majority" of MPs wanted to discuss the issue.

This was particularly important given the debt problems besetting Greece and some other eurozone economies, she added.

But Mr Cameron told BBC One's Andrew Marr Show: "It's not our view that there should be an in/out referendum. I don't want Britain to leave the EU. I think it's the wrong answer for Britain.

"What most people want in this country is not actually to leave the EU, but to reform the EU and make sure that the balance of powers between a country like Britain and Europe is better."

Mr Cameron said that he wanted to use future EU treaties to negotiate the return of powers from Brussels to Westminster.

'National interest'

However, this was an ambition "for the longer term" and did not form part of the current renegotiation of treaties which will keep Britain out of the eurozone bail-out mechanism, he said.

He added: "I will always defend the British national interest. I think our interest is to be in the EU, because we need that single market. We are a trading nation. It is vital for our economic future.

"But I have always made clear my view that we have given too many powers to Europe and there are some powers I would like back from Europe and there may be future opportunities to bring that about."

He added: "I'm not a pessimist on Europe, but I do think we can do better."

The Conservatives' coalition agreement with the - largely more pro-European - Liberal Democrats rules out any further handing of powers to Brussels during this parliament, without a referendum.

But Mr Hague said a referendum on EU membership would not be a "very sensible course of action" at a time of economic crisis.

He told Sky News: "Of course we will look at any motion, but we won't be in favour of holding now an in/out referendum on Europe."

'True colours'

Mr Hague also denied any splits over Europe, saying: "I have meetings with many Conservative backbenchers and I think we are very closely aligned - the party leadership, the government and the great mass of the Conservative Party - on this."

Nigel Farage, leader of the UK Independence Party, which campaigns for Britain's exit from the EU, said David Cameron had "shown his true colours regarding the EU after many months of eurosceptic posturing".

"These comments have let down hundreds of thousands of Tory voters who gave him their support as they thought he would be tough on this issue

"He also says that he believes that most people do not want to actually leave the EU but to reform it.

"How can he possibly know that without asking the great British public? Numerous opinion polls have shown that the majority of people want out."

The conference, taking place in Manchester, continues until Wednesday.

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