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Britain's Cameron seeks to reassure Europe at Davos

David Cameron delivers a speech during a session of the World Economic Forum in Davos, on January 24, 2013
Prime Minister David Cameron delivers a speech during a session of the World Economic Forum in Davos, on January 24, 2013. Cameron told delegates that Britain was not turning its back on Europe, after angering his EU partners by announcing plans for a ref

British Prime Minister David Cameron insisted Thursday he was not turning his back on Europe as the global elite at the annual Davos meeting gave his referendum plans a frosty reception.

Cameron was meeting world leaders and business chiefs at the World Economic Forum in the snowy Swiss ski resort for the first time since a speech on Wednesday revealing plans to let Britons vote on EU membership.

Ahead of speeches by key European partners including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Cameron said urgent reforms were needed to make the EU more competitive but said he wanted Britain to remain in the bloc.

"This is not about turning our backs on Europe -- quite the opposite," he said. "It's about how we make the case for a more competitive, open and flexible Europe, and secure the UK's place within it."

The World Economic Forum is held in the Swiss resort of Davos
Graphic locating site of World Economic Forum. British Prime Minister David Cameron insisted Thursday he was not turning his back on Europe as the global elite at the annual Davos meeting gave his referendum plans a frosty reception.

But Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte indicated the scale of the mountain that Cameron must scale to persuade EU leaders to support his plans to renegotiate Britain's EU membership and then hold a referendum by the end of 2017.

"A UK outside the EU would be an island somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean between the United States and Europe," Rutte told the forum.

Rutte's country had been due to host Cameron's speech in Amsterdam last Friday, before it was postponed by the hostage crisis in Algeria.

Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny took a more conciliatory tone, saying the 27-member bloc would be "stronger if Britain is part of it."

"Whatever happens, I would like to see that Britain would remain central to the European Union. It's very important in the global sense," Kenny told the forum.

Henry Kissinger attends a a session of the World Economic Forum at the Swiss resort of Davos, on January 24, 2013
former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger attends a a session of the World Economic Forum at the Swiss resort of Davos, on January 24, 2013.

Foreign policy guru and former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger meanwhile said that for Europe the "idea of European unity needs to be resolved" if it was to make a lasting recovery from the three-year eurozone debt crisis.

But Cameron, whose country does not use the euro, rejected any call for greater political union, saying: "A centralised political union? Not for me, not for Britain."

Cameron ducked questions about how he would persuade his European partners to back his plans, saying that he was proposing "not just change for Britain but also change for Europe."

He rejected suggestions however that uncertainty could deter foreign businesses from investing in Britain and insisted that being "frank and open" would "actually benefit business."

Dutch PM Mark Rutte attends a session of the World Economic Forum at the Swiss ski resort of Davos, on January 24, 2013
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte attends a session of the annual World Economic Forum at the Swiss ski resort of Davos, on January 24, 2013.

Cameron said British business leaders -- including more than 50 who wrote a letter to the Times newspaper on Thursday -- "say that this is a sensible approach."

His words also chimed with a report by the World Economic Forum published on Thursday which urged the EU to tackle a "competitiveness deficit" to make a lasting recovery from the eurozone debt crisis.

The British premier was due to meet his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev at the forum on Thursday for talks focusing on foreign policy and trade between their countries, Cameron's office said.

Merkel's speech at Davos later Thursday could be crucial for Cameron as he needs the EU powerbroker's support more than anyone's. She said on Wednesday that Cameron's "wishes" should be listened to.

French soldiers inspect the wreckage of a Malian armoured vehicle in Diabaly, on January 23, 2013
French soldiers inspect the wreckage of a Malian armoured vehicle in Diabaly, on January 23, 2013.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, Microsoft tycoon Bill Gates and Jordan's Queen Rania are due to share the stage with Cameron on Thursday evening to speak on issues affecting the global economy.

The crisis in Mali, where French forces are helping African troops fight Islamist militants, will also be discussed while Israeli President Shimon Peres and deputy prime minister Ehud Barak are to address the forum.

No formal decisions are taken at Davos but corporate deals are often sewn up on the sidelines and presidents and prime ministers huddle to thrash out pressing issues.

The invitation-only meeting is also known for its informal luncheons and lavish cocktail parties. The flipside is tight security, with around 5,000 police and military guarding the venue and helicopters buzzing overhead.