Prime Minister David Cameron defends his stance on Europe, as a group of Conservative backbenchers calls on him to renegotiate Britain’s membership of the EU.
Taunted by Labour leader Ed Miliband in the Commons ahead of the prime minister’s keynote speech on Europe on Friday, Mr Cameron said he believed Britain was “better off within the European Union”, but that it should also argue for changes that were in the national interest.
The prime minister was also criticised by Mr Miliband’s brother David, the former foreign secretary, who told Channel 4 News: “I really think there’s rarely been a more cack-handed approach to a serious policy issue than we’ve seen in the last couple of years.
“All of this emanates from the prime minister picking a fight against 81 of his backbenchers, losing it because they revolted against him, and then living in fear of what they’re going to do in the future.”
Ed Miliband quoted Mr Cameron as saying in his early days as Tory leader that his party’s problem was that “they spend far too much of their time banging on about Europe”.
He asked him if he was “glad those days are over”, to which the prime minister responded that “massive change” was now taking place across Europe and there was an opportunity to “maximise Britain’s national interest” and “consult the public about that”.
In his speech in Amsterdam, the prime minister is expected to say that he will seek to achieve a new relationship with the EU, which he will put before the British people in a referendum if his party wins the 2015 election.
The European Union without Britain is pretty much the same as fish without chips. Finnish Prime Minister Jyrki Katainen
This would amount to an in/out plebiscite on Britain’s membership of the EU.
This prompted Finnish Prime Minister Jyrki Katainen to say: “The European Union without Britain is pretty much the same as fish without chips. It’s not a meal anymore.”
In a manifesto published on Wednesday, the Fresh Start group, made up of more than 100 Tory MPs, said “the status quo is no longer an option” and the prime minister should focus on a “robust but achievable renegotiation of our terms of membership”.
The prime minister is reported to have told Tory cabinet ministers that they will be free to campaign for and against an exit. There are thought to be up to nine Conservative members of the cabinet who favour withdrawal if renegotiation does not succeed.
Mr Cameron’s stance has opened up splits within the Conservatives, with Ken Clarke and Lord Heseltine concerned that he is taking risks which could see Britain withdrawing from Europe, a scenario Mr Cameron says he wants to avoid.
Mr Miliband teased him about these splits, but the prime minister said it was “no secret” that he and Lord Heseltine disagreed about Europe.
The Fresh Start group argues that Mr Cameron should press for five revisions to EU treaties.
These revisions include an “emergency brake” for all member states on financial services issues, repatriation of powers on social and employment law (including the working time directive), a British opt-out from policing and criminal justice measures, a new legal safeguard for the single market, and the abolition of the Strasbourg parliament.
One of Mr Cameron’s closest allies, Foreign Secretary William Hague, gave his backing to the group’s ideas in a foreword to its manifesto.
He described the manifesto as a “well-researched and well-considered document full of powerful ideas for Britain’s future in Europe”, adding: “”Many of the proposals are already government policy, some could well become future government or Conservative party policy and some may require further thought.”
Fresh Start is fronted by George Eustice, a former aide to Mr Cameron, who said: “Although it would be a mistake for the prime minister to set out a detailed shopping list this far in advance of any negotiations, these proposals are intended to stimulate debate, to highlight those areas where change is required and also to help inform the government’s ongoing balance of competences review.”
As a self-confessed Euro-sceptic, Mr Cameron is likely to have sympathy for Fresh Start’s demands, but this puts him at odds with his Liberal Democrat coalition partners and many senior figures in the business community.
In his speech, the prime minister is expected to argue for a reformed EU without making specific demands. If he wins the next election, he would seek a renegotiation which would go to a vote in 2018.
Mr Cameron is also under pressure from the rise of Ukip in recent elections, but the Americans and Germans have voiced concern about a possible exit from the EU.