LONDON — Laying out a vision that could lead his country out of the European Union, Prime Minister David Cameron vowed Wednesday to negotiate a new relationship with the 27-nation trading bloc and put Britain’s continued membership to a national vote.
In possibly the most important speech of his premiership so far, Cameron said many of his compatriots were fed up with growing centralization of power in Brussels and that a new deal was necessary. He pledged to try to win concessions for Britain and then let voters pass judgment, by the end of 2017, in a referendum on whether they wanted to remain in the EU.
Cameron called the status quo unacceptable to too many Britons and said a fresh mandate from voters to stay in the EU was imperative.
“It is time for the British people to have their say. It is time for us to settle this question about Britain and Europe,” Cameron said. “Democratic consent for the EU in Britain is now wafer-thin. That is why I am in favor of having a referendum.”
He has to win another term as prime minister first, in an election due in 2015. His Conservative Party will run on a platform making a plebiscite an immediate priority upon a return to power, Cameron said.
Such a referendum would be the first time in about 40 years that Britons had a direct say on their status within Europe, a topic that has inspired deep ambivalence in this island nation for decades. Winston Churchill used to say about Europe that Britain was “in it” but not “of it”; the country’s EU entrance in 1973 was a hand-wringing affair from the start.
Together, EU nations form Britain’s biggest trading partner. Tens of thousands of Britons live and work in other European countries without need of a visa; conversely, U.K.-based firms have enjoyed access to cheaper labor.
In an unusual move, the U.S. publicly declared before the speech that Britain would be a less valuable partner out of the European Union, and leading officials across the Continent pointedly warned London not to expect to dictate terms to the rest of the EU.