David Cameron speech: UK and the EU
- 23 January 2013
- From the section UK Politics
David Cameron has rebuffed criticism at home and abroad of his commitment to hold a referendum on the UK's future in Europe if he wins the next election.
Labour and the Lib Dems have said plans to renegotiate the UK's membership and put it to a public vote was a gamble and against the national interest.
France and Germany warned the UK against pursuing an "a la carte" approach. The US said the UK and the EU were stronger together.
But the PM said he had public backing.
And he said Labour's arguments were "fatally undermined" by confusion over their own position.
Mr Cameron's promise to give the British people "their say" on Europe - in the form of an in/out referendum to be held before 2018 - has been welcomed by most Conservative MPs and eurosceptics in other parties.
MPs will get the opportunity to debate the plan in the House of Commons next Wednesday.
At the next election - expected in 2015 - the Conservative leader said his party would offer people a "simple choice" between staying in the EU under new terms, or leaving the 27-member union altogether.
He said the issue of the UK's future in Europe would not "go away" and now was the right time to confront it when the EU was set to go through a period of profound change amid calls for further integration.
In a long-awaited speech, Mr Cameron said the referendum would be a decision on the UK's "destiny" and, if he secured a new relationship he was happy with, he would campaign "heart and soul" to stay within the EU.
While he believed the UK could survive outside the EU, he said withdrawal would be a "one-way ticket" and he appealed for "cool heads" in the debate to come.
The prime minister rejected suggestions that a new relationship was "impossible to achieve" and dismissed calls for the referendum to be held sooner, saying such a "momentous decision" must wait until the UK's relationship with the EU "had been put right".
"Our approach is what the British people want. It is right for business, right for the economy and we will fight for it in the years ahead."
However, Mr Cameron did not spell out what powers he would like to see the UK take back as part of a new settlement or what would happen if the negotiations did not go his way.
The Conservative leader has been under pressure from many of his MPs to give a binding commitment to a vote on Europe.
But Foreign Secretary William Hague told the BBC that Mr Cameron's message was not "confined or directed" to his backbenchers or those voters attracted by the UK Independence Party's call for EU withdrawal and should resonate across Europe
"It is not the Conservative Party he is speaking to. It is the British public and the European public."
Conservative MPs who want a looser relationship with the EU welcomed Mr Cameron's promise and said it had united the party.
One MP, Mark Reckless, even suggested Mr Cameron had left his own position in a referendum "up for grabs" and had the "wriggle room" to campaign for an exit if he believed this was the only option left for Britain.
Labour said Mr Cameron was "going to put Britain through years of uncertainty, and take a huge gamble with our economy".
But their leader Ed Miliband came under pressure himself after he appeared to go further than he has done before and told MPs that he opposed the idea of an in/out referendum.
The opposition have previously declined to rule out a referendum in the future while arguing that now is not the right time for one, but party sources insisted their position had not changed.
Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg, who is also deputy prime minister, said there was a "right place and right time" for a referendum.
But he added: "My view is that years and years of uncertainty because of a protracted, ill-defined renegotiation of our place in Europe is not in the national interest because it hits growth and jobs."
The UK Independence Party said the "genie was out of the bottle" about a possible exit from the EU but acknowledged that winning a referendum on a platform for withdrawal would not be easy.
Conservatives have said their reform message is likely to win favour with European allies such as Sweden and the Netherlands.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she would listen to British "wishes" but her foreign minister Guido Westerwelle said "cherry picking is not an option" before adding that Europe needed more, not less, integration.
And French foreign minister Laurent Fabius warned: "You can't do Europe a la carte... to take an example which our British friends will understand - imagine Europe is a football club and you join, once you're in it you can't say 'Let's play rugby'".
President Obama's press secretary, Jay Carney said he welcomed Mr Cameron's call for Britain to remain in the European Union, adding: "We believe that the United Kingdom is stronger as a result of its European Union membership and we believe the European Union is stronger as a result of having the United Kingdom in the EU."
No 10 said the British public would have the final say.