Prime Minister David Cameron has promised a future referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU if the Tories win the next general election in 2015 and after a renegotiation of the UK’s relationship with Brussels. But what does it mean and can he deliver his pledge?
An in/out referendum
In his long-awaited speech on Europe, David Cameron said the Tory manifesto for the next general election will ask for a mandate to strike a new deal for Britain in Europe. That would then be put to voters in a referendum by the end of 2017.
He wants the single European market to be protected, but powers to be handed back to national governments, improve European competitiveness and reshape its institutions to make them more democratically accountable.
It was time to ditch a commitment to “ever closer union”, said Mr Cameron in his address in London, and accept member states should decide how deeply they wanted to integrate.
The prime minister has vowed to campaign “with all my heart and soul” for Britain to stay within a reformed EU.
But he’s dodged questions about what he would do if that renegotiation failed to secure the right settlement. That issue is yet to be answered and Mr Cameron’s plans are dependent on him being returned to Number 10 for a second term as prime minister.
Liberal Democrat and Labour warnings
Right now, the UK remains part of the EU - but there are worries about the immediate effect of Mr Cameron’s speech.
In a sign of coalition tensions, deputy prime minister Nick Clegg has warned a renegotiation of Britain’s relationship with Brussels was “not in the national interest” and would spark years of uncertainty for business.
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".
Mr Miliband later tweeted: “David Cameron is putting Britain through years of uncertainty and taking a gamble with our economy, just because he’s running scared of Ukip.”
In a further development, the BBC later reported shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander as saying Labour has not ruled out an EU referendum.
But Mr Cameron was cheered loudly by Tory backbenchers when he arrived for prime minister’s questions in the House of Commons following his speech.
A business perspective
John Longworth, director general at the British Chambers of Commerce, said most UK firms wanted to stay in the single market – but on the basis of a revised relationship with Europe that promoted trade and competitiveness.
“It is of critical importance to business and to Britain’s national interest that we have access to the European market, but not at any cost.
“On this basis, the prime minister’s determination to negotiate a new settlement for Britain is the right course of action,” said Mr Longworth.
What about the Germans and French?
Mr Cameron could have his work cut out trying to convince his fellow leaders across Europe about striking a new deal for Britain.
Germany's 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."
His French counterpart, 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."