LONDON — British Prime Minister David Cameron Wednesday announced plans to renegotiate Britain’s relationship with the rest of Europe, and to hold a referendum on it within five years. But continental leaders are reluctant to provide the kinds of changes he wants.
In a long-awaited speech about Britain’s relationship with the European Union (EU), Prime Minister Cameron said he wants his country to stay in the union, but under new terms.
"I believe something very deeply - that Britain's national interest is best served in a flexible, adaptable and open European Union and that such a European Union is best with Britain in it," he said.
While much of Europe is moving toward closer integration, Britain has always been skeptical of that approach. Years ago, it opted out of the common euro currency and the open borders treaty. Many Britons resent regulations that come from EU headquarters in Brussels, and are concerned about giving the European Parliament and bureaucracy more power.
But the continent’s other major powers are reluctant to let Britain opt out of any more aspects of EU membership. On Wednesday, France’s minister for European Affairs Bernard Cazeneuve spoke for many of his colleague’s on the continent.
The minister said the European Union needs to be strong, coherent and cohesive, and that Britain cannot treat it like an “a la carte” menu.
Domestically, Cameron also came under fire as he tried to chart a moderate course, even from his coalition partner and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg.
“My view is that years and years of uncertainty because of a protracted ill-defined renegotiation of our place in Europe is not in the national interest because it hits growth and jobs," he said.
Opposition leader Ed Miliband expressed his concerns during a raucous session of Parliament.
“He is going to put Britain through years of uncertainty and take a huge gamble with our economy," he said.
Cameron says the uncertainty is there anyway, and his approach will at least provide an end point for it. The issue is expected to be a major part of the next British election campaign, expected in two years.
The prime minister made his plan under pressure from anti-Europe members of his ruling Conservative Party, and from a growing new party that wants Britain out of the EU. To placate them, he is expected to seek to exempt Britain from some European Union rules on such things as workers’ rights, law enforcement and possibly some safety rules.
But Europe expert Iain Begg at the London School of Economics calls those “level three” aspects of European integration. And he is concerned that such issues, blown out of proportion, are risking Britain’s place in an economic and trade pact that it needs.
"I think it’d be damaging to Britain because being inside the big tent in this increasingly hostile global world is better than being on your own," he said.
And Begg notes that even if Cameron can make a new deal with the European Union, which is far from certain, British voters could reject it in the planned referendum. He and other experts say referenda are very unpredictable, with people sometimes voting based on peripheral issues, like whether they like the prime minister or whether they agree or disagree on a minor point of the plan.
Begg says there is a "considerable risk" that the process Prime Minister Cameron began Wednesday will eventually usher Britain out of the European Union.