Prime Minister David Cameron insisted Britain was not “turning our backs on Europe”, as he met fellow EU leaders for the first time since announcing his plan to stage an in/out referendum on UK membership.
Mr Cameron held brief talks with several European leaders at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, where he issued a warning the EU must change because it is being “out-competed, out-invested and out-innovated” by its rivals around the globe.
But in London, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg renewed his assault on Mr Cameron’s “vague” and “implausible” plans to renegotiate the terms of Britain’s EU membership before staging a referendum by the end of 2017.
The Sheffield Hallam MP told LBC 97.3 radio: “I simply don’t understand the point of spending years and years and years tying yourself up in knots, so-called renegotiating the terms of British membership in ways which, at the moment at least, are completely vague. I think that discourages investment and inhibits growth and jobs, which have to remain our absolute priority at a time when the economy is still struggling to recover.”
The aim of any renegotiation was unclear, he said. “Either it’s just basically a bit symbolic, so you tweak the working time directive and a social law here and an environmental law there, which everyone will agree with – in which case what’s all the fuss about? Or you’re going to do something which I think is wholly implausible, which is basically to totally rewrite the rules to benefit us and disadvantage everybody else, which is clearly not going to be agreed to.”
However, Mr Clegg indicated the referendum promise would not be a bar to Liberal Democrats joining Tories in a coalition government if the 2015 general election was inconclusive, promising to “play our part” if necessary.
Meanwhile, Labour leader Ed Miliband sought to clarify his own position on Europe, after appearing to rule out an in/out referendum. Speaking during a visit to a hospital in London, Mr Miliband said: “I am being clear. I do not think it makes sense, now, to commit to an in/out referendum years ahead. And the reason why it does not make sense is clear from what the priority of the British people is. Their priority is jobs and growth and living standards and I’ve got to say what I think the right priority is and I do not believe now it makes sense to commit to an in/out referendum.”
Mr Cameron, buoyed by a letter to The Times from a group of 56 leaders of industry and the City who challenged Mr Clegg’s claim that renegotiation would create an uncertain climate for business, insisted his EU policy was “not about turning our backs on Europe – quite the opposite”. He said: “This is about how we make the case for a more competitive, more open and more flexible Europe and how we secure the UK’s place in it.”
Setting out his case for EU reform, Mr Cameron added: “It is not just right for the United Kingdom, it is necessary for Europe. Europe is being out-competed, out-invested, out-innovated and it is time we made the EU an engine for growth, not a cause of cost for businesses and complaint for its citizens.”
He discussed his proposals in a meeting in Davos with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who had already indicated she was open to a “fair compromise” with Britain, as well as speaking to the prime ministers of Italy, Ireland, the Netherlands and Denmark.
Dutch PM Mark Rutte later said: “The UK outside the EU would be an island somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean between the US and Europe. It would not be connected with any of those two. So I think it is vital for all of us that they stay in.”
Letters: Page 14.