Prime Minister’s EU referendum pledge

In January 2013, UK Prime Minister David Cameron committed his government to the renegotiation of the country’s relationship with the European Union. He also promised a referendum on the outcome. He made his pledges in a speech which brought a mixed reaction from the main employer and trade union bodies. Among Cameron’s concerns is the influence of the working time directive. He says Brussels should not, for instance, set the working hours of British hospital doctors.


On 23 January 2013, the UK’s Prime Minister, David Cameron, delivered a speech setting out his views on the country’s future relationship with the European Union. Mr Cameron is leader of the country’s Conservative Party, which currently rules in coalition with the LibDems. The speech brought mixed responses of the main British employer and trade union bodies, the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) and the Trades Union Congress (TUC).

Key points of the speech

In his speech, the Prime Minister argued that ‘democratic consent for the EU in Britain is now wafer thin’. He stated that the Conservative Party’s manifesto for the next General Election, which must take place by mid-2015, ‘will ask for a mandate from the British people for a Conservative government to negotiate a new settlement with our European partners’. This would then be subject to a referendum by the end of 2017 ‘with a very simple in or out choice: to stay in the EU on these new terms or to come out altogether’.

While Mr Cameron did not set out specific demands, a central objective is expected to be the ‘repatriation’ of current EU competences to determine employment and social legislation. He said:

We need to examine whether the balance is right in so many areas where the EU has legislated, including on the environment, social affairs and crime.

However, the only specific EU social policy measure the Prime Minister referred to was Directive 2003/88/EC on the organisation of working time. He said:

It is neither right nor necessary to claim that the integrity of the single market, or full membership of the EU, requires the working hours of British hospital doctors to be set in Brussels irrespective of the views of British parliamentarians and practitioners.

The UK government has launched a Review of the balance of competences – described as ‘an audit of what the EU does and how it affects the UK’. The aim, according to the Prime Minister, is ‘to give us an informed and objective analysis of where the EU helps and where it hampers’.

Employer group reaction

Views among UK companies and employers’ organisations about the renegotiation of the UK’s membership of the EU are divided. Some business leaders have backed Mr Cameron’s strategy. Others have been more critical, emphasising the case for the UK remaining a leading member of the EU.

The reaction of CBI Director-General John Cridland to the speech was that:

The EU single market is fundamental to Britain’s future economic success, but the closer union of the eurozone is not for us. The Prime Minister rightly recognises the benefits of retaining membership of what must be a reformed EU and the CBI will work closely with government to get the best deal for Britain.

In a subsequent interview with the Financial Times, Mr Cridland, who described himself as a ‘European realist’, said he would like to see the EU Working Time Directive, from which the UK’s opt-out has come under threat, taken ‘off the table’. However, repatriation of employment law, as demanded by Eurosceptic Conservative MPs, was ‘not where I’d start’.

He added that in an in/out referendum, the CBI would probably campaign to stay in the EU. ‘It would be very difficult to conceive of a situation where we would do the opposite,’ Mr Cridland was quoted as saying.

Union reaction

New TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady commented:

The Prime Minister’s call for a possible referendum in four years time is a distraction, creating uncertainty for business investment and making recovery even more difficult. It’s clear that he wants the UK to remain in the EU but on the basis of scrapping vital protection for workers. Yet all of Europe’s most successful economies – in or out of the EU – have better rights at work.

At its January meeting, the TUC’s executive committee adopted a statement arguing that:

...the government wants to take away the rights working people have gained over the last 30 years from the EU. Social Europe has provided working people with more equality, more protection from redundancy, [and] more information about what’s happening at their workplace, as well as a shorter working week and paid holidays.

In the TUC’s view, the Prime Minister was ‘playing politics with Britain’s future prosperity to appease the Eurosceptics’.

Mark Hall, IRRU, Warwick Business School, University of Warwick

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