Cameron open to EU referendum – eventually

British voters could be given the chance to have their say on the European Union in a referendum, David Cameron has hinted.

The prime minister said he wanted to see "whole swathes of legislation… scrapped" in an article for the Sunday Telegraph newspaper.

Mr Cameron made clear such a move would not take place immediately, however, because he wanted to explore options for a renegotiation of powers with Europe rather than a straightforward 'in or out choice'.

He concluded: "As I have said, for me the two words 'Europe' and 'referendum' can go together, particularly if we really are proposing a change in how our country is governed, but let us get the people a real choice first."

The prime minister was responding to pressure from within the broadly eurosceptic Conservative party.

Nearly 100 MPs signed a letter written by Tory MP John Baron calling for the PM to commit to a referendum in the next parliament by passing legislation guaranteeing one would take place.

On Friday Mr Cameron appeared resistant to such a move, saying that his 'referendum lock' guaranteeing a vote in the event of substantial treaty change was sufficient.

In today's article, however, he acknowledged: "The fact is the British people are not happy with what they have, and neither am I."

He asked: "How do we take the British people with us on this difficult and complicated journey? How do we avoid the wrong paths of either accepting the status quo meekly or giving up altogether and preparing to leave? It will undoubtedly be hard, but taking the right path in politics often is.

"As we get closer to the end point, we will need to consider how best to get the full-hearted support of the British people whether it is in a general election or in a referendum."

William Hague appeared on BBC1's The Andrew Marr Show to explain Mr Cameron's thinking in more detail.

The foreign secretary said "the time to decide" on whether Britain should remain in Europe will be when it is clear how the EU develops.

Institutional instability caused by the ongoing eurozone crisis could result in the creation of a core European zone, Mr Hague suggested. "There may be new treaties, there may be this more concentrated core of the Eurozone," he added.

"The time to decide… is when we know how Europe's going to develop over the coming months and years and knowing whether we can get that better relationship."

Mr Hague and Mr Cameron are constrained by his coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, whose pro-European stance effectively blocks a British referendum on the EU during this parliament.

The coalition government is conducting a 'national audit' of what the EU currently does and its implications for Britain.

Mr Cameron is expected to set out the government's position in more detail in the autumn.

Mr Hague said: "The prime minister is not changing our position, but he is pointing the way to how our thinking is developing and how policy should be guided in the future – how we should think about this choice about whether to have a referendum."

"Not an in or out decision now, but a determination to get a better position in the European Union for the United Kingdom."

Mr Cameron's article was met with derision from his political opponents. Labour suggested the Conservative leader was responding to the demands of his backbenchers from a position of weakness.

"Ruling out a referendum one day and then ruling it back in again the next looks like a prime minister spending more time managing his party than leading the country," shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander commented.

"David Cameron seems to be more concerned with securing headlines about Europe than securing vital reforms within Europe."

Supporters of a referendum have dismissed the article. The People's Pledge campaign accused Cameron of being "torn" between his own party's eurosceptic right-wingers and the europhile Liberal Democrats.

Director Ian McKenzie said: "He cannot satisfy both on this issue and swaying from pillar to post from day to day won't convince anyone he is serious about seeking popular consent for our relationship with our European neighbours, whatever that is to be."

Nigel Farage, leader of the UK Independence party, went further, saying Cameron's claims that he would "claw back more powers" were disingenuous.

"All he's done here is to give some sort of vague promise that there might be a referendum in the future, but that it will not be about our membership of the European Union," Farage commented.

"If he thinks by doing that that he's shot Ukip's fox and he's buried this issue in the long grass, he's in for another think."

In his article Mr Cameron warned that either an 'in' or an 'out' vote would be disadvantageous for Britain, however.

If Britain left the EU it would lose international influence, as well as its ability to shape the rules of the single market, he argued.

If Britain remained inside the EU there would also be "profound disadvantages".

"All further attempts at changing Britain's relationship with Europe would be met with cries that the British people had already spoken," the prime minister added.

He agreed that at present there is "too much" of Europe at present and accepted the EU provided "too much meddling" in the lives of British individuals and businesses.