David Cameron. Photo Reuters
Prime Minister David Cameron will promise to give Britons
a straight referendum choice on whether to stay in the European
Union or leave, provided he wins an election in 2015.
Cameron will end months of speculation by announcing in a
speech on Wednesday (local time) the plan for a vote sometime
between 2015 and 2018, shrugging off warnings that this could
imperil Britain's diplomatic and economic prospects and
alienate its allies.
In extracts of the speech released in advance by his office,
Cameron said public disillusionment with the EU is at "an
"It is time for the British people to have their say. It is
time to settle this European question in British politics,"
he said in the extracts, adding that his Conservative party
would campaign for the 2015 election promising to renegotiate
Britain's EU membership.
"And when we have negotiated that new settlement, we will
give the British people a referendum with a very simple in or
out choice to stay in the EU on these new terms; or come out
altogether. It will be an in-out referendum."
Whether Cameron will ever hold the referendum remains as
uncertain as the Conservatives' chances of winning the next
election due in 2015.
They trail the opposition Labour party in opinion polls, and
the coalition government is pushing through painful public
spending cuts to try to reduce Britain's large budget deficit
that are likely to upset voters in the meantime.
Cameron's promise looks likely to satisfy much of his own
party, which has been split on the issue, but may create
uncertainty when events could put his preferred option - a
looser version of full British membership - out of reach.
The move may also unsettle other EU states, such as France
and Germany. European officials have already warned Cameron
against treating the bloc as an "a la carte menu" from which
he can pick and choose membership terms.
His speech in London is also likely to disappoint the United
States, a close ally, which has said it wants Britain to
remain inside the EU with "a strong voice".
Nor is it likely to help heal rifts with his pro-European
Liberal Democrat junior coalition partners.
Cameron said he would prefer Britain, the world's sixth
biggest economy, to remain inside the 27-nation EU but he
also made clear he believes the EU must be radically
A new EU must be built upon five principles, he said:
competitiveness, flexibility, power flowing back to - not
just away from - member states, democratic accountability and
The euro zone debt crisis is a main reason why Britain must
reassess its relationship with the wider EU. "The European
Union that emerges from the Eurozone crisis is going to be a
very different body," he said.
"It will be transformed perhaps beyond recognition by the
measures needed to save the Eurozone. We need to allow some
time for that to happen - and help to shape the future of the
European Union, so that when the choice comes it will be a
"WAFER THIN" CONSENT
Earlier advance extracts, released last Friday when Cameron
had to postpone the speech, showed he felt the EU faced three
main problems: the debt crisis, competitiveness and faltering
On Wednesday, he will say that democratic consent for the EU
in Britain is now "wafer thin", reflecting the results of
many opinion polls that have shown a slim majority would vote
to leave the bloc, as well as the success of the rival UK
Independence Party that favours complete withdrawal.
"Some people say that to point this out is irresponsible,
creates uncertainty for business and puts a question mark
over Britain's place in the European Union," said Cameron.
"But the question mark is already there and ignoring it won't
make it go away."
Avoiding a referendum would make an eventual British exit
more likely, not less, he said. This would risk bottling up
resentment towards the EU, compounding people's feeling that
"the EU is heading in a direction that they never signed up
"Simply asking the British people to carry on accepting a
European settlement over which they have had little choice is
a path to ensuring that when the question is finally put -
and at some stage it will have to be - it is much more likely
that the British people will reject the EU."
Many Britons resent the EU's interference in their daily
lives and its "unnecessary rules and regulations", he added.
Cameron's speech has been marked by long delays, diplomatic
rows and the postponement due to the Algerian hostage crisis.
"The Curse of TutanCameron's Europe speech" was how one
political magazine summed up the situation in a headline over
a picture of a golden-faced Cameron superimposed on the death
mask of ancient Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamen.