LONDON — In a long-awaited speech, Prime Minister David Cameron pledged Wednesday to hold a referendum by the end of 2017 on whether Britain should stay in the European Union, saying it was time to renegotiate a relationship that has become too strained to continue as is.
In Britain today, “public disillusionment with the EU is at an all-time high,” Cameron said, citing regulations and directives out of Brussels that many Britons consider onerous and unnecessary. “Democratic consent for the EU in Britain is now wafer-thin. … That is why I am in favor of having a referendum.”
If his Conservative Party wins again in an election due in 2015, Cameron said, he would push for a new deal for Britain within the EU, with some powers reclaimed from Brussels, and that the new arrangement would be put to voters in an in-or-out referendum by the end of 2017. Such a plebiscite would be the first time in about 40 years that Britons had a direct say on their country’s status within Europe.
Cameron emphasized his own support for Britain’s continued membership — albeit on more favorable terms — in the 27-nation club, which offers free movement of goods and people across the world’s biggest trading bloc, comprising 500 million people.
“I am not a British isolationist, but I do want a better deal for Britain,” he said. “I want the European Union to be a success, and I want a relationship between Britain and the European Union that keeps us in it.”
Cameron said he would campaign “with all my heart and all my soul” to stay in the EU under a new, improved arrangement. But he sidestepped a question of whether he would advocate withdrawal if he failed to win concessions for Britain from other EU nations.
He said Britain’s focus would remain on strengthening the original mission of the EU as an economic grouping marked by free trade within a single market. The moves toward greater political harmonization, with increasing powers for Brussels in areas such as public spending, are what many Britons object to as a loss of British sovereignty, Cameron said.
His speech Wednesday morning, which was delivered in central London, had been anticipated for months but was continually delayed as he tried to figure out just what to say. The issue of Britain’s relationship with the European Union is a tricky one that has bedeviled British leaders for decades, particularly Cameron’s Conservative Party, which is full of so-called Euroskeptics who want only a loose relationship with the EU or to be out of it altogether.
Some of Cameron’s own Cabinet members have called for a British exit from the EU. His dilemma has also become more acute because of the recent rise of the UK Independence Party, which is stealing votes from the Conservatives with its anti-EU stance.
Cameron acknowledged that Britain’s hesitancy and hostility has frustrated other EU nations. But he said the bloc ought to be flexible enough to accommodate countries seeking deeper integration, such as Germany, and those that want a more detached relationship.
He also gave a nod to unusually explicit warnings from the U.S. that a Britain outside the EU would be a diminished partner for Washington, which has looked to London as its bridge to Europe.
“There’s no doubt that we’re more powerful in Washington, in Beijing, in Delhi, because we’re a powerful player inside the European Union. That matters for British jobs, for British influence, for British security. It matters to our ability to get things done in the world.”
But he said it was right to seek a renegotiated relationship with Europe and to insist on a new framework for the EU, though some regard that as “heresy.”
“In its long history, Europe has experience of heretics who turned out to have a point,” Cameron said.