LONDON (Reuters) - Prime Minister David Cameron came under fresh pressure from his own party to loosen ties with the European Union on Wednesday, two days before a speech in which he will spell out plans to renegotiate Britain’s membership of the bloc.
As different interests jockey to influence his speech, which some say could end up reshaping Britain’s role in the world, a group representing about a third of MPs in the ruling Conservative party published a “Manifesto for Change” listing areas where they want decision-making brought back to London.
Cameron will deliver his speech - one of the most closely watched Europe addresses by a British leader since World War Two - in Amsterdam on Friday, a choice meant to underline the fact that some other EU member states such as the Netherlands are sympathetic to many of his policies towards the bloc.
He is expected to say he will offer a referendum on any new settlement he manages to hammer out to change Britain’s four-decade-old links with the EU, probably in 2018. His prospects of success are uncertain, however, as there is unease in some EU member states, notably Germany and France, about Cameron’s plans.
“The status quo in the European Union is no longer an option,” the group’s manifesto said. “The euro zone is facing up to the inevitable consequences of the financial crisis, and is moving towards fiscal and banking union. This is not a path that the British people will go down.”
“We also want to protect British sovereignty, ensuring that the British Parliament can decide what is best for Britain. We do not share the vision of ‘ever closer union’ as set out in the EU treaties.”
Areas where the members of parliament (MPs), who call themselves the Fresh Start group, would like to see powers clawed back including large swathes of employment, social and criminal justice law. They are also pressing for an “emergency brake” on new laws that could affect Britain’s powerhouse financial services industry and are demanding that the EU’s agriculture and fisheries budget be overhauled.
The MPs are also asking Cameron to withdraw Britain from the EU’s “regional policy”, which distributes EU funds to poorer regions, and to press him to restrict the rights of future immigrants from countries such as Romania and Bulgaria.
In a demand likely to be seen as provocative by europhiles, the group wants the option of unilaterally withdrawing from some EU policies if they are perceived to be causing “significant harm”.
William Hague, Britain’s foreign secretary, endorsed the MPs’ manifesto in a fulsome foreword to the document, saying some of the proposals “could well become future Government or Conservative Party policy”.
Cameron regarded the document as “a very interesting contribution to the debate”, his official spokesman said.
Asked in parliament on Wednesday if Britain risked sleepwalking out of the EU, Cameron said: “The most dangerous thing for this country would be to see the changes that are taking place in Europe because of the single currency and stand back and say we are going to do nothing about it.”
He said he did not favour holding an in/out referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU for now, saying it would be a false choice.
“Millions of people in this country, myself included, want Britain to stay in the European Union, but they believe there are chances to negotiate a better relationship,” he said.
Ed Miliband, leader of Britain’s opposition Labour Party, accused Cameron of damaging the country’s image as a good place to invest.
“His position appears to be this: an in/out referendum would be destabilising, but promising one in five years’ time is just fine for the country,” he told parliament.
“What does that mean? That is five years of businesses seeing a ‘closed for business’ sign hanging around Britain.”
Miliband, whom polls show is favourite to win power in 2015, has said he opposes an in/out vote for now, but has declined to spell out precisely what his own policy would be before the general election.
Peter Wilding, founder of the Centre for British Influence Through Europe, a lobby group that promotes the case for close British ties with the EU, warned the MPs’ proposals would risk alienating EU member states and might even trigger legal action.
“Although 50 percent of the proposals are good, most of the repatriation proposals are not supported by practical methods to achieve the objectives,” said Wilding.
Though Cameron says he is adamant he wants his country to remain a member of the 27-nation EU, senior allies such as George Osborne, the Chancellor, have been more ambiguous suggesting the EU must reform itself if London is to stay in it.
Cameron faces pressure from another less influential wing of his party to back away from his renegotiation plans. Ken Clarke, a minister without portfolio, warned the premier against diluting Britain’s influence in a newspaper interview on Wednesday.
Miliband’s brother David, also a member of the Labour party and a former British foreign minister, sounded a similar note of caution as did Nigel Sheinwald, Britain’s former ambassador to the United States.
Prominent business leaders have also told Cameron not to damage ties with the EU, Britain’s biggest trading partner.
France in particular appears anxious about Cameron’s EU policies.
“It’s up to the British to say what they want to do,” French Europe Minister Bernard Cazeneuve told Reuters.
“It is not in the interests of the single market to see the British leave. And the British know very well it is not in their interest to leave the single market.”
Speaking in Brussels, Finnish Prime Minister Jyrki Katainen waded into the debate, saying he expected Britain to remain inside the EU. “The European Union without Britain is pretty much the same as fish without chips. It’s not a meal anymore,” he said.
In Berlin, a spokesman for German Chancellor Angela Merkel said: “I believe that Europe and above all Britain know what our position is on Britain and the EU: we want an active and engaged Britain in the European Union.”
Cameron is expected to brief Conservative members of his cabinet on the contents of his speech on Wednesday, but will exclude ministers from his junior coalition partner - the Liberal Democrats.
Additional reporting by Paul Taylor, Mark John and Emmanuel Cazeneuve in Paris, Luke Baker and Ethan Bilby in Brussels and Stephen Brown in Berlin; Editing by Will Waterman