Cameron 'must apply to leave EU'
David Cameron must apply to leave the European Union immediately if he wins the next election to give voters a "proper choice" between a trade partnership or joining the euro, a former Cabinet minister has said.
Owen Paterson warned that Britain will inevitably be dragged into the single currency and claimed that triggering article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty - activating the two-year mechanism for departure - would mean other nations were "legally bound" to enter into meaningful negotiations before the planned in/out referendum in 2017.
The move puts fresh pressure on David Cameron to toughen his position, but Labour warned that the Tories were "sleepwalking towards the exit".
During a visit to the Crossrail construction site in central London, Opposition leader Ed Miliband said: "We are in favour of an EU-US trade agreement, but what we are not in favour of is what some in the Conservative Party are proposing, which is leaving the European Union.
"I'm afraid the Conservative Party, again today, are a party sleepwalking towards the exit door of the European Union and David Cameron only has himself to blame, because he has given encouragement to those people in his party who think that is the right option for Britain.
"It isn't, it's bad for jobs, bad for investment, bad for businesses."
Mr Paterson said the Eurozone had "already embarked upon a path that we can never follow" and insisted Britain could quit the EU and successfully remain part of the Single Market.
The euro has turned the EU "into an unhappy land of semi-permanent recession" and triggering article 50 would be "enormously attractive to uncommitted voters".
He said: "In short, it is not so much that we are leaving the EU, as much as the political project of the EU has left us."
"You trigger this, we've got an election coming up in May, we have this in the manifesto, you have two years clear and you are bang on target to have a referendum in 2017 in which the British people have a really clear choice," he added.
"That really would be the proper choice because by then you would have negotiated the market option... or the choice is very clear, you go full bore for this political entity in which we are completely subsumed and we have to join the euro."
He said the short timescale for Britain to extract itself from the current set-up means it needs a "proven, off-the-shelf plan" and backed the "Norway option". The Scandinavian country is a member of the European Economic Area, which allows it to be part of the Single Market.
Critics claim the EEA leaves its members bound by Brussels regulations without any ability to influence how they are drawn up but Mr Paterson insisted the EU is now often a "substation" that simply passes on new regulations that are drafted at an international level.
Britain, unlike Norway, has no individual representation at these higher level discussions because it is a member of the EU, he added.
"We have already seen that Norway has more influence in international decision-making than we do as an EU member state. Using the EEA ensures full access to the Single Market and provides immediate cover for leaving the political arrangements of the EU."
Mr Paterson said it would be "very hard to get a big negotiation through by 2017" and voters must be given a "clear democratic choice".
He said: "I think a very significant number of the present parliament share that view and I can assure you that I've spoken in well over 50 seats in the past couple of years, very significant numbers, the overwhelming proportion of members in the country share our views."
He said ministers often made decisions based on whether they could potentially incur fines under a system known as disallowance imposed by "unelected officials" in Brussels.
The UK is paying £600 million in disallowance back to the EU following the "incompetent" way in which the last Common Agricultural Policy was reformed, he said.
Amid Tory divisions over how to respond to the growing poll threat from Ukip, Mr Cameron is said to be considering using a forthcoming keynote speech on immigration to pledge a ban on new EU arrivals claiming in-work benefits for two years.
About 250,000 are thought to receive tax credits and other top-ups, costing the Government around £1.6 billion a year.
Tory Eurosceptic Bernard Jenkin said the UK was a "honeypot nation" because of its relative economic strength within the EU and treaty change was the only way to deal with the issue.
Mr Cameron's position was not helped yesterday when Home Secretary Theresa May admitted the Government was "unlikely" to meet his commitment to cut net annual migration below 100,000, insisting fundamental changes to EU free movement rules were needed.
Downing Street insisted the Prime Minister is continuing to work towards the objective.
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg dismissed Mr Paterson's proposal as "idiotic" and blamed Mr Cameron for stirring up public disquiet over immigration by setting an unachievable target.
But he also made clear that the Liberal Democrats were prepared to join other parties in going "considerably further" with measures to tackle so-called "benefit tourism" and said he was holding talks with Germany on the issue later this week.
"Norway have to abide by all the rules, pay into the coffers, accept people crossing across the European Union and apparently Owen Paterson thinks that would be a really smart idea to do all of that and have absolutely no say on how the club is run at all," he told reporters at a monthly press conference.
"I cannot think of a more spectacular own goal, a greater diminution of this nation's great sovereignty, than basically saying we will abide by everybody else's rules and we've got no say in writing them."
He said he was waiting " with bated breath for this much-vaunted speech from David Cameron" but that he was ready to back significant reforms.
"My own view is that yes, you could go a lot further," he said.
"Other EU member states, some of them actually have much tougher provisions than we do about keeping people out of the country if they have broken the rules or if they shouldn't be there.
"There is the whole issue about at what point do you provide benefits. Do you provide any benefits to people who come here who haven't made any contributions? How much of a contribution do they need to make before they get any in-work benefits?
"Those are the things I am looking at right now and it is one of the things I will be discussing in greater detail with the German vice-chancellor in Berlin on Wednesday. There is a lot there we can do together.
"I think we can go further and, crucially, we can go further in concert with other EU member states.
"The freedom to move was never, and should never be, synonymous with the freedom to claim benefits the first day that you are here, no questions asked.
"That is why we have made a number of reforms and broken that link in this Government and I would be prepared to go considerably further."
Mr Clegg said he had warned Mr Cameron not to make the net immigration pledge - and complained it had proved as damaging as Labour's failure to restrict the numbers able to come from new EU member states in Eastern Europe.
"It was a pretty stupid promise to make. It doesn't make any sense," he said.
"They are now, predictably, facing the embarrassment of breaking a promise they should never have made in the first place.
"It is very damaging to public confidence in the immigration system. It is just as damaging to have the Conservatives make wholly-implausible net migration promises which they are now breaking ... as, for instance, the wildly-implausible claims made by the Labour Party many years ago that very few people would come from central and eastern Europe into this country when we lifted transitional controls.
"Let's do the things we can do to give people confidence that we are running a more sensible, smarter immigration system"
Asked whether Mr Cameron had any response to Mr Paterson's proposals, the Prime Minister's official spokesman told a regular Westminster media briefing: "You know the Prime Minister's approach to reform of the EU and the kind of EU the Prime Minister wants to see. The Prime Minister's view has not changed."