Cameron accused of 'running scared' after EU referendum pledge

British Prime Minister David Cameron’s promise of an in/out referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union sparked a furious political row in Westminster today.

Liberal Democrats said it was not in the national interest, and Labour accused him of “running scared” of the UK Independence Party (Ukip) and his own backbenchers.

In a high-profile speech in London this morning, the British Prime Minister said the Conservative manifesto for the 2015 general election will ask for a mandate to negotiate a “new settlement” for Britain in Europe, which will be put to voters in a referendum by the end of 2017.

Mr Cameron said he wanted a new treaty to reform the EU for all its members, but was ready to demand a renegotiated status for Britain alone if other nations did not agree.

He said that he would campaign “with all my heart and soul” for Britain to stay within a reformed EU.

His offer threatened to drive a wedge through the heart of the coalition Government, with Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg warning that a renegotiation of Britain’s position in Europe was “not in the national interest” and would lead to years of uncertainty for business.

There were also immediate questions over whether other EU states will be prepared to negotiate a special “a la carte” membership for the UK.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she wanted to see a “fair compromise”, warning the UK that other EU states would have their own wishes.

Ms Merkel said: “Germany, and I personally, want Britain to be an important part and an active member of the European Union.

“We are prepared to talk about British wishes but we must always bear in mind that other countries have different wishes and we must find a fair compromise.

“We will talk intensively with Britain about its individual ideas but that is some time over the months ahead.”

German foreign minister Guido Westerwelle said: “Germany wants the United Kingdom to remain an active and constructive part of the European Union… but cherry-picking is not an option.”

And his French opposite number Laurent Fabius warned: “Say that Europe is a soccer club. You join this soccer club, but you can’t say you want to play rugby.”

France would “roll out the red carpet” for businesses leaving the UK if it chose to quit the EU, he said.

At Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons, Labour leader Ed Miliband said that his party “do not want an in/out referendum”.

And he demanded to know whether Mr Cameron would vote Yes in a referendum if he failed to achieve his negotiating goals.

“He is going to put Britain through years of uncertainty and take a huge gamble with our economy,” Mr Miliband told MPs.

“He has been driven to it not by the national interest, he has been dragged to it by his party… He is running scared of Ukip and has given in to his party and he can’t deliver for Britain.”

Mr Cameron told MPs that Mr Miliband had failed to produce a clear policy on Europe: “We want a renegotiation and then a referendum. What does he want? Or doesn’t he know?”

Wales’s First Minister Carwyn Jones has criticised David Cameron’s speech on Europe – saying it plays into the hands of those who want to break up the UK.

Over the years Wales has had hundreds of millions of pounds from the European Union for regeneration projects.

Mr Jones said: “Let me be clear – the UK and Wales’ continued membership of the EU is vital for our economic success.

“As we strive for economic growth following the deep global recession, anything that puts a question mark over our membership of the EU is a mistake.

“Undoubtedly, the Prime Minister’s speech has constitutional repercussions for the UK itself.

“It plays into the hands of those who want to break up the United Kingdom.

“Having a crude and unnecessary in/out referendum, sends out confusing signals to the Scottish people about the UK’s continued membership of the EU.

“As a consequence, this speech will have a destabilising effect on the future of the United Kingdom at a time when we can ill-afford it.”

Cameron’s European Union referendum speech has “completely changed” the debate in Scotland ahead of the 2014 independence referendum, according to First Minister Alex Salmond.

The Scottish National Party (SNP) leader said Eurosceptics in the Prime Minister’s Conservative Party pose the biggest threat to Scotland’s position in the EU.

“This was a fundamentally confused speech by the Prime Minister, which is painfully short on detail,” said Mr Salmond in a statement.

“On the one hand he is trying to appease the Eurosceptics on his own backbenches and on the other he is trying to appear as a European reformer.

“He is trying to ride two horses at the same time and it is inevitable he will fall off before long.

“This completely changes the nature of the debate in Scotland.

“The Westminster parties have consistently claimed that a referendum on Scotland’s independence causes uncertainty.

“It is now clear the persistent undercurrent of Tory Euroscepticism poses the biggest threat to Scotland’s position in the EU and has now helped to hole below the waterline the baseless scaremongering of Alistair Darling and the rest of the No campaign.”

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