Labour isn't anti-referendum: it just doesn't support this one
Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls has said Labour is not an "anti-referendum party" over the EU but warned it would be "crazy" to commit to a date for an in-out vote.
But Mr Balls, architect of Labour's economic policy, conceded it would be a "problem" if Labour was seen to be backing the "status quo" over Britain's relationship with Europe.
David Cameron has committed the Conservative Party to an in-out referendum by the end of 2017 after negotiations to claw back powers from European institutions.
In the aftermath, Labour leader Ed Miliband refused to back the move, but aides later said promising a referendum had not been ruled out indefinitely.
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Speaking to regional newspaper journalists in Westminster, Mr Balls said he was comfortable with the stance "for now".
He said Mr Cameron's position was "ridiculous" – threatening a referendum while the eurozone was in flux and without defining what powers should be repatriated for the UK to stay in the union.
He said if David Cameron's much-trumpeted speech was "as pro-Europeans we must make the case for reform in Europe" then "I totally agree with that".
But he added: "You can say all that without committing to a referendum on a particular date in the next Parliament. That's crazy as a piece of diplomacy or politics."
Asked whether Labour's reluctance to promise a referendum would leave the party open to accusations the party does not trust the public, he said: "As long we don't allow ourselves to be characterised as an anti-referendum party, which we are not, because we have absolutely not ruled out a referendum – and have in fact said we would support a referendum on the basis of treaty change – I personally think for now it's quite a comfortable position for us."
Labour has firmly supported Britain's continued membership of the EU, though even many pro-Europeans want a referendum for the sake of democratic legitimacy given the last nationwide vote on Europe was in the 1970s.
Before Mr Cameron's declaration, Labour's policy chief, Jon Cruddas, had called for an "immediate" in-out referendum to stop the issue "festering".
Mr Balls argues voters are "much more bothered about tax, living standards, jobs and migration is part of that", rather than Europe.
While he said he doubted whether attitudes would change in the short-term, Mr Balls made clear Labour had to "make sure we are on the reform agenda, not the status quo agenda, in the next two years".
He added: "If we allow ourselves to be the status quo party on Europe, or the anti-referendum party on Europe, then we have got a problem. It would be stupid to allow ourselves to get into either of those two positions."
But he signalled the Tories would be foolhardy to focus their 2015 general election campaign on leaving the EU.
"Is he (Mr Cameron) actually going to run an anti-Eruope election campaign? It's what William Hague tried in 2001," Mr Balls said. "It didn't work for him."