LONDON (Reuters) – The European Union must give Britain a “meaty” reform deal if it wants it to stay in the bloc, Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said on Friday, predicting the EU would have to change “whether it likes it or not”.
Hammond, a Eurosceptic and possible successor to Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron, made his remarks to parliament before a vote on legislation that would force any future government to hold a referendum in 2017 on whether to stay in or leave the EU.
With the anti-EU UK Independence Party (UKIP) siphoning off its voters and some of its lawmakers seven months before a national election, Cameron’s party is hardening its stance on Europe and tacking to the right to try to shore up support.
If re-elected, Cameron has promised to renegotiate Britain’s EU ties before holding a referendum in 2017. The EU would probably have to amend its founding treaties to accommodate Britain’s demands, he has said, something other EU states are reluctant to do.
“Our partners in Europe will know that they cannot do deals with politicians in smoke-filled rooms. They will have to come up with something meaty and substantial that will work for the British people,” Hammond told parliament.
“When that process is completed it will be the British people who judge whether that reform represents the substantial and irreversible change that I judge they will need to see if they are to decide that Britain’s future lies inside the European Union.”
“The European Union may get treaty change sooner than it thinks and whether it likes it or not,” said Hammond. “The penny is finally beginning to drop across Europe. Reform and change there will be.”
After Hammond spoke, lawmakers voted by 283 to zero to give initial backing to a law to make an EU membership referendum legally binding for whoever is in government after 2015.
Cameron cannot hold a referendum now because he is in a two-party coalition with the Liberal Democrats, who oppose his plan.
With a national election in May and both the opposition Labour party and the Liberal Democrats sceptical of the need for such a vote, the bill’s chances of success are uncertain.
Cameron’s critics view it as a symbolic attempt to woo Eurosceptic voters and unite his own fractious party.
Although his party abstained in the vote, Douglas Alexander, Labour’s foreign affairs spokesman, made clear its disapproval.
“We do not believe that a bill calling for an in/out referendum in 2017 on an arbitrary date unrelated to the likely timetable of major treaty change that puts jobs and investment in Britain at risk is in our national interest,” he said.
Cameron’s Conservatives face a difficult by-election for a parliamentary seat in southeast England on November 20, a close-run contest in which UKIP is expected to do well.
Some say his Euroscepticism may harm his election chances.
“This is clearly an attempt to pander to UKIP, but it is also the best way for the Conservative Party to lose the election next year,” said Nathaniel Copsey, a politics expert at Aston University.