Prime Minister David Cameron on Tuesday formally laid out Britain’s conditions for remaining in the European Union, seeking changes in his country’s relationship with Brussels that he is betting are substantial enough to win over a majority of British voters but modest enough for the rest of Europe to swallow.
In a speech in London and a written letter of proposals for reform, Mr. Cameron called on fellow European leaders to grant him a series of concessions to help persuade wavering Britons to remain in a bloc that critics say has become a vast bureaucracy impinging on their national sovereignty and way of life. Mr. Cameron has promised to put the issue to a referendum by the end of 2017, and his aides suggest that he might do so as early as next June.
In his speech, Mr. Cameron told British voters that their decision would be crucial and the final say on the issue — a “once-in-a-generation choice.” He said, “You will hold this country’s destiny in your hands; this is a huge decision for our country, perhaps the biggest we will make in our lifetimes.”
Prime Minister David Cameron outlined on Tuesday four demands central to Britain’s negotiations with the European Union over whether it will remain in the bloc. His demands include the following:
Economy: Guarantees that the European Union will maintain its single-market system and not impose policies that would discriminate against Britain for not adopting the euro.
Competitiveness: A cut to regulations and bureaucracy.
Sovereignty: Exemption from commitment to pursue greater integration among European Union countries, and an increased role for national parliaments in the union’s decision-making.
Immigration: Agreement to let Britain limit welfare benefits for European migrants for four years after they arrive in the country.
The negotiation over Britain’s demands will also be a crucial test for nations, starting with Germany and France, that are struggling to maintain cohesion and a sense of progress within the bloc after years in which economic stagnation, rising populism and assertive nationalism have undercut their plans to bind the Continent’s governments and people more closely together.
After months of quiet talks with European leaders, who generally want Britain to stay but are resistant to any changes to the bloc’s main principles, Mr. Cameron is hoping to get the basics of a deal done at the next European Union summit meeting in mid-December, or failing that, at an emergency summit meeting early next year. His aides say he does not want to drag out the referendum, with some suggesting that he would prefer to have it before what could be another chaotic summer of migrant flows to Europe. The handling of that issue has already undermined the reputation of the European Union in British eyes.
Mr. Cameron has made clear that he wants a deal that will allow Britain to stay, but in an effort to retain negotiating leverage and credibility with the anti-European right wing of his Conservative Party, he has also signaled that he is willing to walk away if necessary and that he believes that Britain could do just fine on its own if the union does not grant him what he wants. The British public remains roughly split on the merits of membership in the bloc, according to opinion polls.
Margaritis Schinas, a spokesman for the European Commission, the executive arm of the bloc, underlined the sensitivity of the issue, saying that some of Mr. Cameron’s proposals “are highly problematic, as they touch upon the fundamental freedoms of our internal market.” He added, “Direct discrimination between E.U. citizens clearly falls into this last category.”
In a letter to the president of the European Union Council, Donald Tusk, giving details about what concessions he wanted, Mr. Cameron signaled some flexibility on the issue of benefits for migrants.
“I understand how difficult some of these issues are for other member states, and I look forward to discussing these proposals further so we can find a solution that deals with this issue,” Mr. Cameron wrote in the letter to Mr. Tusk, a former prime minister of Poland, a country with hundreds of thousands of citizens working in Britain.
Mr. Cameron promised a plebiscite nearly three years ago to calm anti-European sentiment in his Conservative Party, a decision that now leaves him with one of the most difficult political challenges of his tenure.
Having held the United Kingdom together last year by squeaking out a victory against separatists in the Scottish independence referendum, Mr. Cameron may face a more difficult task now because few Britons feel much of an emotional tie to the European Union.