LONDON — Prime Minister David Cameron and his Liberal Democrat deputy, Nick Clegg, clashed Thursday on whether the possibility of Britain leaving the European Union within five years risks putting off investors and damaging the economy.
Clegg, who leads the pro-EU Liberal Democrats, distanced himself from his Conservative coalition partner’s plans to repatriate powers from the EU. Cameron promised voters a referendum Wednesday by late 2017 on whether to remain in the EU on new terms or leave the 27-nation bloc, saying he will make the case for staying.
“Where, of course, David Cameron and I part company is I simply don’t understand the point of spending years and years and years tying yourself up in knots first, so-called renegotiating the terms of Britain’s membership in ways that at the moment at least are completely vague,” Clegg told London’s LBC radio station Thursday during his weekly phone-in show. “And I think that discourages investment and inhibits growth and jobs, which has to remain our absolute priority.”
Cameron defended his position in a question-and-answer session after his speech Thursday to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
“We’re going to resolve this issue in a way that is actually going to benefit business because we’ll end up with a more competitive, more open European Union,” Cameron said.
“I would argue the riskiest thing of all would be to do nothing, would be to sit back, see all the changes taking place in Europe with the euro zone, and just say ‘this is nothing to do with us,’ ’’ he said. ‘‘And see all the debate in Britain and say, ‘I’m going to stay back from it.’ ”
A letter to the Times newspaper signed by 55 leaders of industry and London’s financial district welcomed the referendum proposals as ‘‘good for business and good for jobs.’’
The opposition Labor Party argued that Cameron’s position on the EU will make Britain less attractive to foreign investors.
‘‘We have traditionally said, ‘come to Britain because it is a favorable climate,’ ’’ former Europe minister Peter Hain told the BBC. “We are on a road which could lead us out of Europe and out of that market and that is a decision which is going to affect investment.’’
Clegg indicated that Cameron’s referendum pledge wouldn’t prevent a renewed coalition after the 2015 general election.
He said he is not afraid of holding a referendum, pointing to the fact that the Liberal Democrats had already provided for a vote in the case of more powers being transferred to the EU.
‘‘There should be a referendum when the United Kingdom is asked to give new powers to the European Union, when there’s a new treaty in the European Union,’’ Clegg said.