British Chancellor and Finance Secretary George Osborne has given the Governments strongest hint yet that a referendum is likely on Britains place in Europe but stopped short of promising one, it was reported Friday.
The Chancellor became the first senior member of the Cabinet to suggest that a nationwide vote would be necessary to redraw the UKs relationship with Brussels if the euro crisis leads to greater integration between eurozone nations, the Times newspaper said.
Osborne pointedly referred to the Governments new law that would trigger a referendum if powers are passed to the EU as "one of the most significant things this government has done." Crucially, he suggested that the new Europe likely to emerge from the wreckage of the single currency will indeed mean powers passing to Brussels.
His intervention has raised hackles among Liberal Democrats, who are committed to avoiding what they see as a divisive referendum.
But it will delight the Conservative right, who have been agitating for an in-out referendum on Europe and were angered by Osbornes latest budget statement, commentators said.
Osbornes attempt to curry favour is likely to provoke scepticism since all three main parties have at one time or another promised referendums on Europe and then did not fulfill their pledges, the commentators added. Yesterday former British Foreign secretary David Owen said: "We must quit the EU and be free of its 'shackles' or face joining a 'single country called Europe." So far ministers from Premier David Cameron down have stressed that a referendum is not necessary because changes that affect only the eurozone do not involve powers being ceded to Brussels from the UK.
But Osborne suggested the fundamental change in the nature of the EU, with eurozone countries effectively merging their fiscal policies and potentially their bank deposits, is such a fundamental change that the British public should have their say. A reshaped relationship with Europe would imply, would involve, a transfer of sovereignty or powers to Brussels, he said.
One official told the paper: "Hes not saying we definitely need a referendum. Hes not calling for that now. But he did go out of his way to discuss the referendum issue."