Cameron’s EU referendum speech has faced criticism from the Labour party, Liberal Democrat members of the coalition, and from senior EU officials, ahead of delivery. Douglas Alexander, the shadow foreign secretary, believes the prime minister’s call for a referendum is motivated by “low politics”, while EU officials have accused him of trying to “blackmail” European states into repatriating powers to the UK. Nick Clegg has also warned that uncertainty over the UK’s membership of the EU could have a “chilling effect” on the economy.
Renewed speculation over Britain’s place in Europe is simply not in the nation’s best interests at present. Ed Miliband stated during Prime Minister’s Questions on 16 January that if holding a referendum now would be destabilising, calling one in five years’ time will be equally troublesome. Alexander agreed: “I don’t think it’s in Britain’s interests to have a prime minister who seems to be spending more time negotiating with his backbenchers than calling European leaders”.
Cameron’s backbenchers are largely Eurosceptic, which has caused numerous troubles for the coalition. In October 2012, Cameron suffered a massive backbench revolt when 53 of his party members joined with Labour to defeat a government debate on the EU budget. While our government remain at odds over Britain’s relationship to the EU, the president of the European council, Herman Van Rompuy, has called on the UK to remain an “active, full, and leading” EU member.
US state department’s Phillip H Gordon, the assistant secretary for European and Eurasian affairs says that Britain risks damaging its relationship with the US and being sidelined in the international community if it leaves the EU.
Speaking publicly, Gordon stated that the US values a “strong UK voice in a strong European Union” and that British membership is in America’s interests; a British exit from the EU would not enhance the “special relationship” between the two countries in any way, and that Britain’s voice within the EU is “essential and critical to the US”. As a respected senior member of the administration, Gordon’s statement demonstrates the level of concern in Washington over the possibility of a referendum on British membership of the EU.
American desire for Britain to remain a significant force in Europe comes from the justifiable belief that, within the EU, the UK most accurately represents American attitudes towards issues. Menzies Campbell noted: “Britain and America talk the same language on defence and trade”, and that a British presence in Brussels would ensure “the EU retains a significant Atlantacist dimension”. The crisis is pushing Cameron towards a gamble. If it goes wrong, it could cost not only Britain’s EU membership, but also the vaunted “special relationship” with Washington.
Clegg’s standing on the issue has underlined the sharp divide now emerging between the coalition’s two parties over Europe, which will only increase as the next general election approaches, as he has agreed with US concerns over Britain’s EU membership. Labour’s shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander stated: “There is a real risk of Britain sleepwalking towards exit because of a prime minister motivated more by the need for party unity than by the interests of the country.”
Miliband affirmed: “When it comes to Europe it’s the same old Tories: a divided party and a weak prime minister.” If forced to take sides, Cameron should be choosing the interests of his country over the interests of his party.