EU referendum: A rabbit from a hat... or is it just a dead duck?

The Prime Minister’s aggressive European gambit has prompted a furious debate about Britain’s future. Here, influential figures tell The Independent whether he’s done the right thing...

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Indy Politics


Guy Verhofstadt, former Belgian pm

David Cameron’s promise to hold a referendum regardless of the state of negotiations over a revised EU treaty is playing with fire. He can control neither the timing nor the outcome of the negotiations. Cameron will not succeed if he attempts to hold his European partners to ransom. Britain has suffered over the years from the chronic failure of politicians to make a positive case for Europe and counter the untruths in much of the populist press. Cameron made an attempt at this. But by promising to effectively pull Britain out of the EU unless he can repatriate powers he contradicts his intentions and creates more, not less, uncertainty about Britain’s future.”

Sir Menzies Campbell, former Lib Dem leader

This was never about the UK; it was always about Ukip. The declarations of satisfaction which came from the Tory right immediately following Mr Cameron’s speech were disturbing for those of us who are supporters of European engagement. Mr Cameron’s speech had nothing to do with Britain’s place in Europe and everything to do with his leadership of a bickering and divided party. Tory leaders of the past who have had to fight sections of their party over Europe have found it an unrewarding experience. Mr Cameron is fated to be among their number.”

Caroline Lucas, former green leader

David Cameron wants to renegotiate Britain’s role in Europe and then hold a referendum. But not for five years. In other words, to bury the issue until after the next election. It’s pure cowardice. I have long argued for a referendum. Not because I want us to leave, but because it’s right that people have a say on an issue of such importance.”

Helena Morrissey, fund manager

Irrespective of what Britain does, the eurozone is reacting to its own crisis by choosing ever closer union. Whoever is in government needs to respond to that so we have to redefine our relationship at some stage. However, I do think it will be hard to reach a negotiated settlement that gives Britain what she wants. We last had a referendum on Europe in 1975, so many of us have not had the chance to have our say. Personally, I think we should.”

Emma Reynolds, shadow EU minister

The Prime Minister’s Europe speech was made at the wrong time for the wrong reasons. He has put his party interest before the national interest. He has diminished our influence in reshaping a more competitive and flexible Europe and he has ignored the friendly advice of President Obama and many European leaders.”

Roland Rudd, chairman, Business for New Europe

We welcome the renegotiation of issues on a multilateral rather than unilateral basis. But there is a real and present danger of four years of uncertainty for business at this time of very fragile recovery, and the prospect of the foreign direct investment we so desperately need diverting elsewhere at least until the result of the referendum is known.”

Sir Martin Sorrell, advertising mogul

[Our] clients are worried. It’s this uncertainty. It’s very simple – let’s say you build a factory in the UK. The gestation period is two or three years. You’ve got your factory up and running and suddenly the UK pulls out. You’ve got tariffs, you’ve got trade barriers. Suddenly you’re outside Europe. That will either suspend decisions or will move them elsewhere. I think he’s [Cameron] right to finally get to terms with this, to have a proper debate. But to postpone it for this length of time is dangerous. Like it or not, we are part of Europe. If I look at Europe, Germany and Poland are more and more important. That’s where the power will lie. I think for us to be outside, that would be a mistake.”