LONDON — Will Britain’s EU membership be one more casualty of the continent’s devastating debt crisis?
Senior British lawmakers warned Monday that Britain must consider a future outside the European Union as the 17 members of Europe’s currency union, which the UK has stayed out of, develop closer fiscal and political ties.
Plans to exit the EU — a policy once advocated primarily on Britain’s political fringe — are rapidly gathering mainstream appeal and could dominate debate at the country’s scheduled 2015 national election.
“I do not believe that Britain’s national interest is served by its current relationship with the EU,” Britain’s former Defense Secretary Liam Fox said in a speech offering support to growing calls for a national vote on the issue.
Opinion polls show most Britons are deeply skeptical about closer European ties and eager to win back national decision making powers previously lost to Brussels.
Britain last held a vote on its membership of the EU, then the European Economic Community, in 1975.
Fox said that European nations which don’t use the euro currency should press for much looser ties to their neighbors, or contemplate quitting the bloc altogether.
“Life outside the EU holds no terror,” Fox said, insisting that much like non-EU members Switzerland and Norway, Britain would be able to continue to trade easily with its neighbors.
Prime Minister David Cameron has acknowledged that Britain may need a future national vote on its ties to Europe, but insists that shouldn’t happen while the debt crisis is unfolding.
He told lawmakers that Britain’s priority must be to “deal with the instability and chaos” sweeping the eurozone, before considering its relationship with its neighbors.
“Far from ruling out a referendum for the future as a fresh deal in Europe becomes clear, we should consider how best to get the full consent of the British people,” he said.
However, Cameron said euroskeptics were wrong that the only option for Britain to defend its interests was to quit the EU altogether.
Cameron pointed to his decision in December to veto changes to the European Union treaty, when he was the only leader among the bloc to refuse to endorse a plan for nations to submit their budgets for central review and limit the deficits they can run.
Ex-government minister John Redwood, like Fox also a member of Cameron’s euroskeptic Conservative Party, said many British people would welcome a chance to vote to leave the European Union.
While residents in the Eurozone nations “want more EU power over their lives, we intend to have less. We should travel in the opposite direction,” he wrote on his blog.
Britain’s main opposition Labour Party has suggested it could include plans for a national referendum in its manifesto for the 2015 election. However, the Liberal Democrats — junior members of the coalition government with Cameron’s Conservatives — are staunch defenders of European ties.