Britain’s European partners have reacted sceptically after David Cameron promised a referendum on UK membership of the EU if his Conservative Party wins the next election.
The World Economic Forum in Davos was buzzing with reaction to the prime minister’s vow to renegotiate Britain’s conditions and then hold an in-out vote.
“Could it spell the beginning of the end of the European Union itself?”, the President of the European Parliament was asked.
“Definitely not,” laughed Martin Schulz. “It could be the beginning of the end of David Cameron. I get the impression that this speech was directed more at Britain’s Tories then the European Union. A prime minister who says I will hold a referendum, but only after the next elections, is eyeing the next elections and not the referendum. I find what Mr Cameron is doing very implausible.”
From Germany there are hints of a conciliatory tone. The Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle repeated his view that “cherry picking” is not an option and the eurozone needs more centralised powers, not less.
But his boss appeared more flexible. Chancellor Angela Merkel said: “When we talk about pushing for your own interests then of course every member country in the European Union has its own interests but Europe means that you must find fair compromises. Within this framework we are prepared to talk about British wishes, but we must always bear in mind that other countries have different wishes and we must find a fair compromise.”
The French government sees no need for such diplomatic language. The Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius says if Britain wants to leave the EU, Paris will “roll out the red carpet”.
Last year David Cameron used the same phrase to welcome French tax exiles.
“We can’t have a Europe ‘a la carte’. I will use a comparison that our British friends will understand very well. Imagine Europe is a football club. You join the football club, but once you are in you cannot say ‘let’s play rugby’,” Fabius told French radio.