The announcement signaled a new course for Britain, a nation that has sought for years to heed Winston Churchill’s adage and be “with Europe, but not of it.” Although Britain has maintained its own currency, the pound, and stands outside one of the region’s major customs treaties, it has nevertheless remained a full member of the 27-nation E.U., which has strived to build the world’s largest integrated economy, governed by common laws and open borders.
But in what was seen as the most pivotal speech on Europe by any government leader here in decades, Cameron vowed to reclaim sweeping powers from the E.U.’s administrative capital in Brussels, even if Britain stays in the union. Citing growing resentment in Britain of the E.U.’s slow bureaucracy and meddlesome edicts, Cameron declared, “It is time for the British people to have their say.”
“We have the character of an island nation — independent, forthright, passionate in defense of our sovereignty,” he said. “We can no more change this British sensibility than we can drain the English Channel.”
If Britain did leave the E.U., the country could suffer a severe blow as a global banking center and could see its clout in regional affairs and European foreign policy greatly weakened. Such a move could also require a new immigration agreement to settle the status of millions of European nationals living here as well as British nationals living on the continent. A British exit would also be a hard setback for the E.U., depriving it of an economic and military power that enjoys one of the biggest global footprints of any European nation.
Cameron, who has come under intense pressure from an anti-Europe right wing of his Conservative Party to call a referendum, acknowledged in his speech that he thinks Britain is stronger within the E.U. and should remain part of it. He warned those itching to leave that Britain, as one of the region’s strongest powers, should stay at the heart of Europe’s future and not on its fringes like other non-E.U. nations, including Norway and Switzerland.
But he suggested that his support for continued membership is contingent on winning exemptions for Britain from some common European labor laws, judicial decisions and other regulations. “I am not a British isolationist,” Cameron said. “But I do want a better deal for Britain.”