UK should stay in EU, says Cameron

Prime Minister David Cameron today said he would not support a referendum on UK membership of the European Union.

It was revealed today that MPs are set to vote on a referendum within the next few months, after a petition with more than 100,000 signatures was submitted calling for the public to be given the chance to decide whether Britain should stay in the EU.

Speaking at the start of the Conservative Party in Manchester, Mr Cameron said he did not believe the UK should quit the EU.

And he played down the prospect of the Government repatriating powers from Brussels in the near future.

The Government's immediate priority on Europe is to get the crisis in the eurozone sorted out and revive the continent's economy, he said.

The Commons Backbench Business Committee is expected to set a date before Christmas for a one-day debate in the House of Commons on a referendum on EU membership. The vote will not be binding on the Government, but if MPs back a referendum, it will put massive pressure on Mr Cameron to put the issue to the country.

The committee's Labour chairman Natascha Engel told the Mail on Sunday: "Given the crisis in the eurozone, this issue has become more relevant than ever. There is a clear majority of backbench MPs who want to debate this and we have to respond to that.

"The EU today is completely different from the one the British people voted to join in 1975. It is time to examine the position again.

"For years it has suited successive governments to avoid debating whether Britain should leave the EU. The whole purpose of my committee is to make sure the big issues of the day are aired in Parliament. People in pubs and shops all over Britain are discussing our membership of the EU and it is time MPs openly debated it too."

But Mr Cameron told BBC1's Andrew Marr Show: "It's not our view that there should be an in/out referendum. I don't want Britain to leave the EU. I think it's the wrong answer for Britain.

"What most people want in this country is not actually to leave the EU, but to reform the EU and make sure that the balance of powers between a country like Britain and Europe is better."

Mr Cameron said that he wanted to use future treaties to negotiate the return of powers from Brussels to Westminster.

But he said that this was an ambition "for the longer term" and there was no immediate prospect of treaty changes to make it possible. It did not form part of the current renegotiation of treaties which will keep Britain out of the eurozone bail-out mechanism, he said.

Mr Cameron left no doubt that he believes the collapse of the European single currency would be highly damaging for Britain.

"Right now, the eurozone is a threat not just to itself but a threat to the British economy and a threat to the worldwide economy, so we have to deal with this," he told the Marr Show.

The break-up of the single currency would be "very bad" for the UK, even though it is not a member of the euro and will not join under his leadership, said the Prime Minister.

"If bad things happen in the eurozone, that affects us," he said. "We can't insure ourselves from the fact that the German and French economies - the two biggest economies in Europe - have stalled. That's a real problem for us.

"I will always defend the British national interest. I think our interest is to be in the EU, because we need that single market. We are a trading nation, it is vital for our economic future.

"But I have always made clear my view that we have given too many powers to Europe and there are some powers I would like back from Europe and there may be future opportunities to bring that about."

Mr Cameron indicated that he was not planning to use the current crisis in Europe to seek a renegotiation of the terms of Britain's membership.

"I have been very clear that I think we have given too many powers to Europe. There are some powers I would like to get back. Any future treaty change would be an opportunity to do that, but right now that is not on the immediate agenda," he said.

And he added: "The eurozone issue is the urgent priority. That is what needs to be dealt with.

"There is a European treaty right now which gets us out of the bailout mechanism that Labour got us into. The prospect for further future treaties is not an immediate prospect.

"What we have got to do is make sure we sort out the eurozone issue in a way that protects British interests for the longer term."

The logic of the single currency means that the 17 members of the eurozone will probably have to move to closer co-ordination of their fiscal policies, said Mr Cameron. But he made clear that this should not be allowed to delay the more urgent action needed to stave off the sovereign debt crisis.

"Action needs to be taken in the next coming weeks to strengthen Europe's banks, to build the defences that the eurozone needs and deal with the problem of debt decisively," he said.

"They have got to do that now and get ahead of the markets now, irrespective of the changes the eurozone might choose to make in the future about having more economic co-operation, which I suspect they will need."

And he added: "The Government's priority right now is to sort out the eurozone, get the European economies growing again.

"Let's get the single market working properly, because there are huge things we could do in Europe to help promote growth in Britain - get the single market in energy, finish the single market in services, open up European markets, make sure that we stop the costs that are being piled onto British business through the EU. Let's stop all of that."

He said: "I'm not a pessimist on Europe, but I do think we can do better."

Foreign Secretary William Hague said that a referendum on EU membership would not be "sensible" at a time of economic crisis.

Asked about how the Government would approach any Commons debate on a referendum, Mr Hague told Sky News's Murnaghan programme: "Of course we will look at any motion, but we won't be in favour of holding now an in/out referendum on Europe.

"At a time of economic difficulty to actually say to people, instead of getting everything growing in our economy, we are going to spend our time on an in/out referendum which will create uncertainty for businesses in Britain - that wouldn't be a very sensible course of action."

Mr Hague denied that the Conservatives were split on the issue of Europe: "I have meetings with many Conservative backbenchers and I think we are very closely aligned - the party leadership, the Government and the great mass of the Conservative Party - on this."

The Conservative leadership remained keen to repatriate powers from Brussels, but was "constrained" by the fact that they are in coalition with Liberal Democrats, he said.

"This is a party that is committed to the return of powers from the EU to the UK," said Mr Hague. "We are constrained by being in a coalition on that subject, but that is something that I still believe in."

He added: "It may well be one of the dividing lines in the general election."


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