LONDON — Ending months of speculation, Ed Miliband, leader of Britain’s opposition Labor Party, said Wednesday that he would almost certainly not hold a quick referendum on the country’s membership in the European Union if he wins power next year.
Even with the outcome of next year’s general election difficult to predict, Miliband’s comments in a speech in London reduced the prospects of Britain’s quitting the 28-nation EU in the next few years.
He had been under pressure from some sections of his party to match a pledge by Prime Minister David Cameron, who wants to loosen British ties to the EU and hold a referendum in 2017 on whether to leave it.
Miliband said he would hold a referendum only if there were a new agreement which transfers power from London to Brussels, adding that this was unlikely during the lifespan of the next government.
He said a Labor government would guarantee “that there will be no transfer of powers without an in/out referendum, without a clear choice about whether Britain stays in the European Union.”
While outlining criticism of the way the European Union operates, Miliband argued there is “an overwhelming economic case” for British membership in the union, as an exit would put at risk the advantages of being in a single market of around 500 million consumers. Britain would either end up outside that market, or it would remain subject to terms and rules dictated by others, he said.
Labor currently has a lead in most polls about voting intentions for the next general election, but not a decisive one.
Miliband’s statement means, in effect, that the only scenario in which a referendum on EU membership is likely is if Cameron and his Conservative Party win an overall majority. To do that, they would have to improve on their performance in 2010, when they had to form a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, traditionally the most pro-European of the main political parties.
Cameron has been under pressure from the success of the populist United Kingdom Independence Party, which campaigns against immigration and wants Britain to leave the European Union. The party is expected to prosper in elections to the European Parliament this May, and many Conservative lawmakers worry that it will siphon voters from them in the general election in 2015.
Britain’s only referendum on its status in Europe was in 1975. When asked today, most respondents say they would like another vote on the matter.
The issue of Britain’s membership and role in the union does not feature at the top of voters’ concerns, however, coming well below the economy, jobs, and social matters such as health.
While Miliband was pressed by some to neutralize critics of the European Union by offering a quick referendum on membership, others advised him this could hurt a future Labor government.
In recent months, the business community in Britain has expressed growing concerns about the uncertainty that the prospect of a referendum might bring. Vince Cable, the British business secretary and a Liberal Democrat, warned last week of a “blight” on foreign investment and told The Independent the referendum pledge had exerted a “chilling effect.”