Britain's Osborne insists his government will be constructive in EU reform negotiations

BRUSSELS – British finance minister George Osborne insisted Tuesday that his recently re-elected Conservative government has a “very clear mandate” to push ahead with discussions to reform the European Union ahead of a planned referendum on British membership of the bloc.

Arriving for talks Tuesday with fellow finance ministers from the 28-country EU, Osborne said his Conservative Party will aim to “improve Britain’s relationship with the rest of the EU and to reform the EU so it creates jobs and increases living standards for all its citizens.”

A referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU by the end of 2017 was a key plank of the Conservatives’ winning manifesto in the British general election last week.

Osborne, who is set to be one of the lead negotiators, refused to address growing speculation that the referendum may be brought forward a year to 2016. Many in his party and within business think the referendum should take place earlier than planned because it would reduce uncertainty and won’t clash with general elections in Germany and France.

“We go into these negotiations aiming to be constructive and engaged but also resolute and firm, and no one should underestimate our determination to succeed for the working people of Britain and indeed for the working people of the European Union,” he said.

Since it joined what was then known as the European Economic Community in 1973, Britain’s membership has often been strained. Over the past few years, a growing groundswell of opinion in the country thinks exiting the EU is the best option for the country especially at a time when many of its members are getting closer together, notably with the creation of the euro currency. In last week’s election, the U.K. Independence Party, which aims to get Britain out of the EU, won 4 million votes.

The Europe question has troubled the Conservative Party for decades. Splits within the party were notable in the 1990s when many EU countries were preparing for the euro, and contributed to its spell in opposition between 1997 and 2010. Many think that Prime Minister David Cameron has opted for a referendum to shore up his party, which is still divided over the merits of Britain’s membership.