Only the Conservatives will give voters a real choice over Britain's future in Europe, says Prime Minister David Cameron
The British people now have a very clear choice: if you want a referendum on whether Britain should stay in the EU or leave, only the Conservative Party will guarantee to hold one.
If I am Prime Minister after the election, I will negotiate a new settlement for Britain in Europe, and then ask the British people: do you wish to stay in the EU on this basis, or leave? I will hold that referendum before the end of 2017, and respect the decision.
A year ago, in a speech at Bloomberg, I set out my plan to reform the European Union and change Britain’s relationship with it. Britain is not alone in our view that change is needed. No one has argued harder than Angela Merkel that the European Union needs to reform if it is to compete in the modern world. My Dutch counterpart has coined the phrase “Europe if necessary, national when possible”. We share a view that the status quo is not working, and we intend to change it.
I completely understand and share people’s concerns about the European Union. Our businesses value the single market. But they find the degree of European interference in our everyday life excessive. People are worried that Britain is being sucked into a United States of Europe; that may be what some others want, but it is not for us. They see decisions being taken far away, rather than by their elected representatives in Parliament. And they worry that European rules have allowed people to claim benefits without ever working here. As a result, democratic consent for Britain’s membership has worn wafer thin.
And although it would not be a very smart negotiating tactic to lay all Britain’s cards on the table at the outset, I know people want more detail about the specific changes we will seek. So I can confirm today that tackling these concerns will be at the heart of our approach.
Let me set out some of the key ones. Powers flowing away from Brussels, not always to it. National parliaments able to work together to block unwanted European legislation. Businesses liberated from red tape and benefiting from the strength of the EU’s own market – the biggest and wealthiest on the planet – to open up greater free trade with North America and Asia. Our police forces and justice systems able to protect British citizens, unencumbered by unnecessary interference from the European institutions, including the ECHR. Free movement to take up work, not free benefits. Support for the continued enlargement of the EU to new members but with new mechanisms in place to prevent vast migrations across the Continent.
And dealing properly with the concept of “ever closer union”, enshrined in the treaty, to which every EU country now has to sign up. It may appeal to some countries. But it is not right for Britain, and we must ensure we are no longer subject to it.
So, yes to the single market. Yes to turbo-charging free trade. Yes to working together where we are stronger together than alone, as we are doing right now on Ukraine. Yes to a family of nations, all part of a European Union – but whose interests are guaranteed, inside the euro or out.
No to ever-closer union. No to a constant flow of power to Brussels. No to unnecessary interference. And no, it goes without saying, to the euro, to participation in eurozone bailouts or notions such as a European Army.
This is an ambitious agenda for a new European Union. Delivering it will take time and patience, as well as strong relationships with our key allies and goodwill – not shouting from the sidelines. It will require a negotiation with our European partners. Some changes will best be achieved by alterations to the European treaties – others can be achieved by different means.
But when we achieve it, we will have transformed the European Union and Britain’s relationship with it. I would then campaign for Britain to remain in this reformed EU in 2017.
Of course, there are many defeatists who say this is impossible. They include Ukip, who offer no serious plan and simply can’t deliver on anything they promise; and Labour and the Liberal Democrats who won’t stand up for Britain and refuse to give people a choice in a referendum. Neither course is in our national interest.
None of those parties can – or even want to - deliver the change Britain and Europe need. Only Conservative candidates will campaign for this agenda in the European elections in May; we need a strong team elected who will fight Britain’s corner.
And we have already shown that we can change Europe.
In December 2011, I vetoed a new EU Fiscal Treaty that would have damaged Britain’s interests. Whereas Labour jeopardised our rebate and weakly signed Britain up for eurozone bailouts, we put a stop to that, the first ever power returned from Brussels to Britain. And a year ago, we cut the EU budget for the first time in history – when everyone told us it was impossible. We have ensured that key decisions on banking union require Britain’s consent, protecting our position in the single market and maintaining the competitiveness of the City of London. We have reformed fisheries policy, and launched ground-breaking negotiations on a massive EU-US trade deal.
We have shown in the past four years – at home and in Europe – that when we set out a clear objective and a plan to achieve it, we deliver. We are clearing up the mess Labour left behind.
This nation has got a grip of its public finances, and is now one of the fastest growing economies in the G7. By our own exertions, we have become masters of our own destiny again.
Now let us bring the same determination and tenacity that we have applied to turning our economy around to the task of changing the European Union.