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Britain should stay in a reformed European Union so countries can stand together against the aggression of Russia, North Korea and Islamic State, David Cameron has said.
At a dinner in Hamburg hosted by Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, the prime minister gave his strongest comments yet about what he sees as a need to stay in the EU for national security reasons.
He made the remarks in his final set-piece speech on the EU before he meets other leaders for a summit on 18-19 February to agree Britain’s renegotiation demands in Brussels.
Cameron needs all 27 EU leaders to back the deal hammered out with the European council president, Donald Tusk, who has cleared his diary to hold pre-summit talks with some of the doubters, including France’s François Hollande, Greece’s Alexis Tsipras, Romania’s Klaus Iohannis and the Czech premier, Bohuslav Sobotka.
Speaking at the annual St Matthew’s Day banquet in Hamburg, Cameron said he would “unequivocally recommend” that Britain stays in the EU if he clinched the deal on Friday. He said he would rule nothing out if there was no deal, but, he said, “I believe we can … win that referendum and that will be good for Britain, good for Germany and good for the whole of Europe”.
Remaining in a reformed EU was vital for the UK’s security and prosperity, he said.
“In a world where Russia is invading Ukraine and a rogue nation like North Korea is testing nuclear weapons, we need to stand up to this aggression together – and bring our economic might to bear on those who rip up the rulebook and threaten the safety of our people,” he said.
“And in a world where people look at the threat of extremism and blame poverty or the foreign policy of the west, we need to say no: it’s about an ideology that is hijacking Islam for its own barbaric purposes and poisoning the minds of our young people.
“And just as Europe has faced down dangerous and murderous ideologies in the past, so again we must stand together in this; the struggle of our generation. To confront this evil – and defeat it, standing together for our values, for our security, for our prosperity.”
Merkel gave a strong endorsement of Cameron’s reform strategy, saying that Britain’s demands were “not just understandable, but worthy of support”.
At the banquet in the city where she was born, the chancellor said: “It’s natural that every EU member state is able to protect its social system against abuse.”
Talking of the upcoming EU summit in Brussels next week, Merkel said that “the way the talks have progressed so far are putting me in a confident mood”, but that further compromises were needed. “I can’t predict how many hours sleep I will get from Thursday to Friday, but we are focused on finding a solution.”
“My wish is that the United Kingdom will remain an active member of a successful European Union in the future”, Merkel said“Europe needs Great Britain and Great Britain needs Europe.”
Cameron’s warning against Russia echoes comments made by Hilary Benn, the shadow foreign secretary, who argued this week that president Vladimir Putin would “shed no tears if Britain left the European Union” and would see Brexit as a “sign of our weakness and of the weakness of European solidarity at the very moment when we need to maintain our collective strength”.
On Monday, Cameron claimed leaving the EU would increase the chance of migrants in the Calais camps coming to the UK as the border with France could move to Kent – comments that provoked claims from campaigners to leave the EU that he was engaging in scaremongering. He also claimed EU membership was essential for knowing vital information about “terrorists and criminals moving around Europe”.
The prime minister’s increasingly pro-EU speeches have angered some within his ministerial team who are effectively gagged from speaking out against Britain’s membership until a deal with Brussels has been announced.
Last week, Cameron angered grassroots activists when he told MPs to “do what’s in your heart” and not listen to their local constituency associations, which tend to be more Eurosceptic than the Conservative parliamentary party.
In a sign of further dismay at his position, more than 130 Conservative councillors wrote to Cameron on Friday, warning in the Telegraph that he risked splitting the party unless he accepted that his renegotiation had failed and he campaigned for Britain to leave the EU.
Negotiations on the final wordings of the deal, which includes an emergency brake on benefit payments to EU migrants and a UK opt-out from “ever closer union”, look set to go down to the wire. The British foreign secretary, Philip Hammond, said on Thursday that there was still only a working draft and that there were outstanding issues still to be addressed.
There has been speculation that Tusk could call a further emergency summit if next week’s gathering fails to reach an agreement.
Out campaigners claimed that the latest revised text to emerge on Thursday represented a further watering down of a plan that they had already dismissed as inadequate. Downing Street sources said the substance of the deal remained unchanged with only “minor technical changes” to the draft wording.
If Cameron does achieve a settlement next week, he is likely to announce the date of a referendum shortly afterwards. It is widely thought that the government is preparing to hold the vote in June – with 23 June pencilled in as a possible date – so that it does not coincide with a possible summer migration crisis, which could stir Eurosceptic feeling.
On Thursday, Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, threatened to open the borders and send millions of refugees to EU member states. Turkey has taken in about 3 million refugees and is under pressure from the EU and UN to give refuge to tens of thousands more Syrians fleeing advances by Bashar al-Assad’s regime in the Aleppo region.
Cameron has been urged to agree to take part in a televised debate before the EU referendum. On Thursday, Ruth Fox, director of the Hansard Society, one of UK’s oldest parliamentary campaigning groups, said it was likely that the prime minister would have to share a stage with the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, as Labour would be “very opposed to it all being done just through the prime minister”.
She said: “The prime minister is going to be an integral part of this but if he is going to be the leader of the pro-EU campaign, someone like Alan Johnson will be elbowed aside. I think the Labour party will have a problem with it. The devil will be in the detail and I can see ahead fraught negotiations was difficult enough for the leaders’ debates.”