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Britain will hold in-out referendum on Europe by the end of 2017
CONSERVATIVES will stage a referendum on whether Britain should remain a member of the European Union by the end of 2017 if they win the next election.
In an historic speech this morning David Cameron threw down the gauntlet to his fellow EU leaders to agree sweeping changes to the UK's membership terms or face a damaging exit.
His pledge to hold a national referendum delighted eurosceptics but is likely to horrify major employers who fear a British exit will be hugely damaging for the economy.
In recent days executives from Ford, BMW and Honda have all warned of dire consequences should Britain try to go it alone.
American diplomats have also warned that Britain will lose influence on the world stage if it carries out its threat and the Germans have forecast an "economic disaster".
Mr Cameron's pledge to campaign for continued membership of a “more flexible, adaptable and open” EU and not to "pull up the drawbridge" will do little to mollify their concerns.
Speaking in London, the Prime Minister declared himself in favour of a straightforward in/out referendum - the first since Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson negotiated changes before a referendum in 1975.
The Conservative manifesto for the 2015 general election will ask for a mandate to negotiate a “new settlement” for Britain in Europe.
Enabling legislation would be drafted before the election and passed by the end of 2015 to complete the renegotiation and then submit it to voters in a referendum within the first half of the next five-year Parliament.
“It is time for the British people to have their say,” Mr Cameron said. “It is time to settle this European question in British politics...
“I say to the British people: this will be your decision. And when that choice comes, you will have an important choice to make about our country's destiny.”
He put forward a vision of an EU based on competitiveness, flexibility, power flowing back to member states not draining away from them, accountability and fairness.
Mr Cameron was initially planning to make his speech in the Netherlands last Friday, but had to postpone it in order to focus on the Algerian hostage crisis. More than six months in the planning, the address has been so often delayed that the PM joked he was taking a “tantric” approach to policy.
It comes amid growing Tory backbench concern about the rising tide of support the UK Independence Party, which has recorded poll ratings of 10 per cent or more with its call for an immediate in/out poll.
Mr Cameron acknowledged that “public disillusionment with the EU is at an all-time high” and said democratic consent for the EU within the UK as “wafer-thin”, adding: "Put simply many ask" why can't we have what we voted to join - a single market?"
The UK was seen as "argumentative" by fellow EU members, he admitted. "For us the EU is a means to an end. Not an end in itself. But this doesn't make us, somehow, un-European."
Mr Cameron said that “with courage and conviction" he could deliver a more flexible, adaptable and open European Union in which the interests and ambitions of all its members can be met.
Labour leader Ed Miliband said last night that the speech defined Mr Cameron as “a weak Prime Minister, being driven by his party, not by the national economic interest”.
“Everyone knows that the priority for Britain is the jobs and growth that we need,” said Mr Miliband. “We have had warning after warning from British business about the dangers of creating years of uncertainty for Britain.
“This speech will do nothing for a young person looking for work, for a small business worried about a loan, for the family whose living standards are squeezed. Britain needs a Prime Minister who is making change happen now in Europe, ensuring that we put jobs and growth ahead of austerity and unemployment.”
But Mr Cameron said the uncertainty already existed and ignoring the question would not make it go away. "It is essential to Europe, and Britain, that we do," he said.
The EU had been central in "healing the wounds of history", he added. "We should pay tribute to all those in the EU, as well as Nata, that made that happen."
The EU's remit now was not to secure peace, but prosperity and the challenge Britain faces came not from within Europe but without.
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