The question of Europe surfaced once again in Westminster today just days before David Cameron's critical Europe speech to be given in the Netherlands this Friday. Cameron is expected to call for a future referendum on the UK's relationship with the EU, believing that changes need to be made in order to protect Britain's national interests.
This morning Fresh Start, a group of over 100 backbench Conservative MPs briefed the press on a report calling for a substantial return of powers to the UK from the EU. Andrea Leadsom stated that the group were calling for "significant reversions" to current EU treaties, including the return of control over employment law. Leadsom's key message was that Britain could not accept the "status quo" in Europe and that changes needed to be made to protect Britain's interests.
Leadsom stressed that there was a great deal of support for Britain's position from other members of the EU and that the media should not hold a biased coverage on the situation. She went on to emphasise that the Conservatives were a "unified party" over Europe, and that there were no polarized views within the party. Asked how long negotiations over Europe could go on, Leadsom stated that there was no specific timeframe with discussions currently on-going on a weekly basis, although it appears that talks could go on until 2015. Calling for a referendum or "more drastic measures", Leadsom believes that negotiations will be successful given that Britain has European allies. However; she accepted that Britain had to be willing to leave the EU "if it came to that." Despite the timing of Fresh Start's briefing, the press were urged that it was merely a coincidence that it came just days before Cameron's highly-anticipated speech. Following the briefing, the prime minister commented that Fresh Start had made "a very interesting contribution to the debate" on Europe, perhaps suggesting that such thoughts may be present in his forthcoming speech.
Confirming his position on Europe during today's Prime Minister's Questions, Cameron stated:
"What Britain should be doing is getting in there, fighting for the changes we want so then we can ask for the consent of the British people to settle this issue once and for all,".
Deliberately ignoring direct questions on Europe from Labour leader Ed Miliband, Cameron would not comment if he thought Britain would be part of the EU in five years' time. The prime minister simply reiterated that "changes were needed for Britain" and that a "competitive and flexible" treaty is his priority.
Mr Miliband accused the prime minister of losing control of his party stating that the Conservatives were a "divided party" led by a "weak prime minister." However, although Cameron admitted that he and Tory peer Lord Heseltine were in "disagreement" over Europe, he stated that the danger was to "pretend that there is no debate", which he will go on to fight for on Friday.
After a long-awaited speech on Europe, it will not be long before we know where the Conservative's truly stand on the UK's position in the EU. However, with talks likely to go on until 2015, it seems that we may be waiting for some time before an official agreement is made.
By Emily Stacey