In his strongest warning to Europe yet, British Prime Minister David Cameron said Wednesday that he planned to hold a referendum on whether the United Kingdom should remain in the European Union by the end of 2017.
"I don't just want a better deal for Britain," David Cameron said in his sharply critical and long-awaited speech on London's future relations with Brussels. "I want a better deal for Europe too." He went on to describe major challenges, including high debt, a lack of competitiveness and the people's diminishing trust in European institutions. The union, he argued, must urgently be reformed.
"The biggest danger to the European Union comes not from those who advocate change," Cameron said, "but from those who denounce new thinking as heresy."
Without reform, he warned, "the danger is that Europe will fail and the British people will drift towards the exit". With that statement, Cameron continued on to the most important point of his speech with his announcement that, if he is re-elected, he will offer the British people a referendum by the end of 2017 on whether the country should stay in the EU. He described it as a "very simple in or out choice. To stay in the EU on these new terms; or come out altogether."
Cameron said his decision is based on the crisis of confidence in the European Union, saying that the people no longer feel represented. He described an acute feeling in Britain that more and more power is flowing to the EU, treaty after treaty is changing the balance of power between member states and the EU and "they were never given a say." The result of this, he said, is that "democratic consent for the EU in Britain is now wafer thin." People, he warned "feel that the EU is now heading for a level of political integration that is far outside Britain's comfort zone."
The British leader said it is not his goal for Britain to exit the EU. "I want the European Union to be a success," he said. "And I want a relationship between Britain and the EU that keeps us in." Noting that Britain wanted to remain in NATO because it was in its national interest to stay, he also said that "we have more power and influence ... if we act together."
Still, it is likely that euroskeptics in Britain and in Europe will applaud Cameron's speech. "Would Britain collapse if we left the EU? No, of course not," Cameron told the BBC last week. "You could choose a different path. The question is, what is in our national interest?"
'All This Doesn't Make Us Somehow Un-European'
Without radical reforms, he warned, Europe cannot continue. He also named five principles upon which a future EU shold be anchored: competitiveness, flexibility, power must flow back to member states, democratic accountability and fairness. If these challenges aren't addressed, he warned, "the danger is that Europe will fail and the British people will drift towards the exit."
Cameron also sought to explain the strong will of the British people when it comes to the conditions of its EU membership. "I know that the United Kingdom is sometimes seen as an argumentative and rather strong-minded member of the family of European nations," he said. "And it's true that our geography has shaped our psychology. We have the character of an island nation: independent, forthright, passionate in defense of our sovereignty." He also argued that the European Union is a means to an end for Britain.
"We insistently ask: how, why, to what end?" he said. "But all this doesn't make us somehow un-European."
In Brussels, Martin Schulz, the German president of the European Parliament and a member of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), sharply rebuffed Cameron's criticism. In an interview with German public radio station Deutschlandfunk, he said that the reforms necessary to make the EU more effective, more transparent and leaner had failed in part because Britain had blocked them. "They are the ones who are largley responsible for the delays in Europe and also the ones pointing their fingers at Europe."
For the full text of Cameron's speech, click here.