Prime Minister David Cameron will hold an early referendum on membership of the EU if he can first reach a deal that satisfies his demands for major changes in Britain’s relationship with Europe.
Mr Cameron, who won a majority in Thursday’s general election, has pledged to renegotiate Britain’s ties with Europe and then give voters an in/out referendum on EU membership by the end of 2017.
“If we can do it earlier we will,” his spokesman said, adding that Mr Cameron would seek changes to the EU’s basic treaties as part of the renegotiation.
The prospect of a vote on membership has worried both investors and allies, who say Britain’s influence would be diminished if it dropped out of the world’s biggest trading bloc.
Mr Cameron says he wants to stay in a reformed EU but has also said that he would not be heartbroken if Britain left. Opinion polls show British voters are divided, with a little over half in favour of membership.
Since unexpectedly winning a second term, Mr Cameron has been offered talks on reforms by European leaders but the EU executive has stressed that there can be no renegotiation of the EU’s basic treaties.
Mr Cameron’s spokesman was clear: “He wants treaty change.
“All the advice that he has had is that treaty change is required, for example in terms of some of the changes that we want to see in welfare.”
Making amendments to the basic treaties requires unanimity among all 28 states and even if such an agreement could be reached those changes would need to be ratified in each country.
Meanwhile, Mr Cameron’s lead negotiator, chancellor George Osborne, arrived in Brussels yesterday promising to improve relations with Europe: “We go into the negotiations aiming to be constructive and engaged,” he said. “But also resolute and firm.”
Donald Tusk, a former Polish prime minister and fellow conservative who chairs summits of EU leaders, has said he shares many of Mr Cameron’s concerns. He will play a crucial role in forging consensus in the European Council on reforms.
“Brussels will have to be open minded and listen to Cameron,” said former Swedish prime minister Carl Bildt. “Substantive accord is needed and Tusk is the key person here.”
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