LONDON: Former prime minister John Major has urged incumbent David Cameron to negotiate positively as he seeks a “new settlement” with the European Union (EU) and played down Eurosceptics’ hopes of powers being returned to Britain.
Major backed Cameron’s pledge to call an in/out referendum by 2017 but described it as a “gamble.” He hoped it would “heal sores” and have a “cleansing effect” on politics.
Major’s seven years in Downing Street to 1997 were scarred by rows with Tory Eurosceptics, even though he won an opt-out from the single currency and social chapter of workers’ rights.
Speaking to the Chatham House think tank, he said: “At present, we are drifting towards and possibly through the European exit. We need a renegotiation and a referendum endorsement of it. If this is denied, the clamour for it will only grow. But it is a gamble for the country and for the Conservative Party.
“The relationship with Europe has poisoned British politics for too long, distracted parliament and come close to destroying the Conservative Party. It is time to resolve the matter.”
He warned that the negotiations would be difficult, and suggested Mr Cameron should not threaten a British withdrawal to try to “bully” the UK’s EU partners. “If we enter with the aggressive attitude of ‘give us our way or we quit’, we will fail,” he said.
He continued: “We should not overestimate what can be achieved.” He said other EU nations were unlikely to allow Britain to withdraw from the social chapter, to which the previous Labour Government signed up, and common agricultural and fisheries policies.
But he believed Cameron could deliver repeal of the working time directive, safeguards for the City of London, less regulation, less bureaucracy, no more social legislation and boosting the single market. Warning that some Tory MPs had become addicted to rebelling, he said hardline Eurosceptics would never be satisfied no matter what Cameron achieved.
“Members with Conservative heads and Ukip hearts cannot be placated. Whatever is offered to them will be insufficient. They will demand more. They will only be satisfied by withdrawal, so it’s essential for the Prime Minister to rally the persuadable majority of the parliamentary party. If the negotiations fail, the referendum could be lost and we could slip out of the EU in frustration and by default.”
Any restrictions imposed on Romanians and Bulgarians travelling to Britain next year will breach European Union laws, Cameron was warned by the European Commission’s vice-president.