Cameron promises 'in-or-out' referendum on Europe
Prime Minister David Cameron promised Wednesday to give British people a choice on EU membership, sparking immediate criticism from his main European partners.
In a long-awaited speech in London, Cameron vowed to hold a referendum by the end of 2017 giving voters a choice of staying in or leaving the European Union if his party wins the next election.
He said he wanted to renegotiate the terms of Britain's troubled membership of the EU before putting the new agreement to a vote.
But Britain's main European partners, France and Germany, warned it could not expect to operate by a different set of rules from the other 26 EU members.
Cameron said the referendum would offer Britain a "very simple choice" -- either to accept the outcome of the negotiations or to leave the EU altogether after four decades of membership.
"It is time for the British people to have their say," he said.
Cameron said that if his party wins an outright victory in the 2015 general election, the government would hold a referendum during the first half of the new five-year parliament, by the end of 2017.
He said Britain, a member of the European bloc since 1973, did not want to isolate itself but disillusionment with the EU was "at an all-time high" and it was essential to radically change the way it functioned.
If reforms were not introduced, Britain could "drift" out of the EU, he warned.
Cameron said that if he managed to secure terms he was satisfied with, he would campaign "heart and soul" for Britain to remain within the bloc. He refused to speculate on what he would do it he failed to reach a deal.
The prime minister said the EU was still grappling with problems in the eurozone -- of which Britain is not a member -- as well as "a crisis of European competitiveness", and the gap between the EU and its citizens had "grown dramatically in recent years".
"If we don't address these challenges, the danger is that Europe will fail and the British people will drift towards the exit," he added.
France and Germany -- the EU's power couple -- predicted that Cameron faced an uphill struggle to change Britain's terms of membership, although German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she was ready to discuss his "wishes".
"We can't have Europe a la carte," French Foreign Minister Laurent insisted. "Imagine the EU was a football club: once you've joined up and you're in this club, you can't then say you want to play rugby."
Merkel said Europe was all about finding "fair compromises".
"In this context, we are of course ready also to talk about British wishes but one must keep in mind that other countries also have other wishes," she added.
The EU's executive arm tried to put a brave face on the speech, welcoming Cameron's declared willingness to remain in the EU.
Cameron has faced intense pressure from the eurosceptic right wing of the Conservative Party to take a stand on Europe, an issue that has long divided the party.
A leading Tory eurosceptic, Daniel Hannan, hailed the speech as "the most significant I've heard by a British prime minister in 40 years of membership", adding: "He's the first British leader to have trust in the electorate."
In a speech that he had originally planned to give in Amsterdam last Friday before the Algerian hostage crisis intervened, Cameron said his party would start renegotiations after the next election, provided it wins.
"The next Conservative manifesto in 2015 will ask for a mandate from the British people for a Conservative government to negotiate a new settlement with our European partners in the next parliament," he said.
"And when we have negotiated that new settlement, we will give the British people a referendum with a very simple in-or-out choice to stay in the EU on these new terms, or come out altogether. It will be an in-out referendum."
Cameron said a rethink of Britain's membership was essential because British people resented the intrusion into national life of unnecessary EU rules and regulations.
His insistence on renegotiating British membership drew criticism from his government coalition partners, the pro-Europe Liberal Democrats.
Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg said the job of rebuilding the recession-hit British economy would be made harder "because of an ill-defined, protracted renegotiation of Britain's status within the European Union".
Opposition Labour party leader, Ed Miliband, also accused Cameron of "taking a huge gamble on the economy".
Martin Sorrell, the chief executive of advertising giant WPP who was among a group of prominent British business leaders to warn Cameron against a referendum before the speech, said uncertainty was now inevitable.
"We don't even know whether we will be able to renegotiate or not, so there's a lot of uncertainty," he said at the World Economic Forum in Davos.