Britain cannot maintain 'status quo' on Europe: PM
(LONDON) - Prime Minister David Cameron stood his ground Monday against pressure from his party to hold a referendum on British membership of the European Union, but said "the status quo" was unacceptable.
Cameron rejected calls from lawmakers in his Conservative party to hold an immediate referendum on whether Britain should leave the EU altogether, but he has signalled he is open to a vote on renegotiating British ties to the union.
"There are those who argue for an in-out referendum now," he told parliament.
"I don't agree with that because I don't believe leaving the EU would be best for Britain -- but nor do I believe that voting to preserve the exact status quo would be right either."
He added: "Just as I believe it would be wrong to have an immediate in-out referendum, so it would also be wrong to rule out any type of referendum for the future."
Cameron said that tackling the "instability and chaos" in the eurozone must be the EU's first priority.
But in the future, Britain should "shape its relationship with Europe in ways that advance our national interest in free trade, open markets and co-operation".
Many Conservatives want an "in-out" referendum on a complete withdrawal from the EU, but such a vote would face strong opposition from their junior coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats.
Ed Miliband, leader of the opposition Labour party, accused the prime minister of changing his position to ease the growing disquiet within his ranks.
"Why is he doing it now?" he asked parliament. "It's not to sort the crisis of growth... it's all about managing the divisions in his own party."
Liam Fox, the former defence minister and a senior Conservative lawmaker, said on Monday that Britain should exit the EU if it failed to broker a new relationship.
Fox said he wanted Britain to "negotiate a new relationship with the EU based on economic rather than political considerations".
If Europe blocked the move Britain "would have no alternative but to recommend rejection and consider departure from the EU", he added.
Like Cameron, Fox stressed that any vote must wait, saying a referendum now would be "an error with great tactical risks".
Cameron on Sunday opened the door to the possibility of a vote but said it should not happen yet and left open what the question posed should be.
"For me the two words 'Europe' and 'referendum' can go together," he wrote in the Sunday Telegraph, adding that he favoured a poll on the nature of Britain's relationship with the EU, rather than a straight "in-out" vote.
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, leader of the centrist Lib Dems, made it clear that he took a different line on Europe.
"You have two people at the top with two different instincts on this," he said on Monday.
"It is clearly not a priority now to have an abstract debate about a referendum on a question which is not yet specified on a date which is not yet specified on a set of circumstances which is not yet specified."
About 100 Conservative lawmakers wrote to Cameron last week calling for a legal commitment to holding a referendum in the next parliament.
The government is already planning an audit of the impact of European laws in Britain which is likely to drive the campaign for repatriation of certain powers from Brussels.
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