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British PM gambles with risky Europe speech

17 january 2013, 11:34
British Prime Minister David Cameron gives a long-awaited speech in the Netherlands on Friday that could push his country towards the European exit door and put his own position at risk, AFP reports.

The speech in Amsterdam promises to be one of the most important by a British leader since World War II, following in the footsteps of previous premiers who have gone to the continent to deliver speeches on Europe.

Cameron is expected to set out plans to renegotiate Britain's membership with the EU and then allow British voters to vote on the new terms in a referendum after the general election in 2015.

The Conservative leader has said that he wants Britain to remain in the European Union, which is Britain's biggest export partner, while wresting back some powers from Brussels.

But it is a huge gamble, as a "no" vote in any referendum on new terms could precipitate a "Brexit" from the EU, with far reaching effects for the whole of the 27-nation bloc.

Cameron defended his plans on Monday, saying that a straight in-out referendum on membership would be a "false choice" and adding: "I'm confident we will get the changes that we want."

Yet the issue has become a huge headache for him as he tries to balance the demands of an increasingly eurosceptic Conservative party and British public with those of his European partners.

The speech was repeatedly put back over the last six months, then suddenly brought forward from January 22 after it emerged it would clash with ceremonies marking 50 years of post-war reconciliation between France and Germany.

In a further sign of trouble Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte will not attend the speech being made on his country's soil, although he will meet Cameron for talks earlier on Friday.

Cameron has tried to win allies for his position and embarked on a round of telephone calls to European leaders in the past week.

But there is likely to be little sympathy for Britain's demands for special treatment when the bloc is still recovering from the crisis in the eurozone, of which Britain is not part.

"Let's be honest about it: renegotiation means either a 'Brexit' or the end of the single market and in fact of the EU," Belgium's former prime minister Guy Verhofstadt, now a member of the European parliament, said Tuesday.

International allies including the United States have criticised Cameron's plans while business leaders have warned that the uncertainty could harm Britain's economy.

Domestically, Cameron will be walking in the shadow of previous British prime ministers.

Winston Churchill called for a "United States of Europe" in Zurich in 1946, but Britain was not allowed to join what was then the European Economic Community until 1973.

Margaret Thatcher, the "Iron Lady", went to Bruges in 1988 to say that Britain "does not dream of some cosy, isolated existence on the fringes of the European Community" while Tony Blair spoke in Warsaw to call for enlargement of the EU.

But Cameron's strategy means he must secure the repatriation of powers if he is not to appear weak -- and then after that must still win a referendum on the new terms, likely in 2018.

Failure to win the referendum would not only torpedo his own leadership but would also point Britain towards an EU exit, as voters would effectively have failed to back Cameron's vision for Britain's place in Europe.

Cameron's referendum plans likely depend in any case on his ability to win an outright majority in 2015, as the Conservatives' current coalition partners the Liberal Democrats are strongly pro-Europe.

The Lib Dem deputy prime minister Nick Clegg -- a Dutch speaker -- warned on Tuesday of a "chilling effect" on the economy. Britain could not "unilaterally simply rewrite the terms of our membership" of the EU, he said.

But the biggest threat to Cameron is his own party, which tore itself apart over the issue of Europe under both Thatcher and her successor John Major.

The eurosceptic Conservative right-wing fears that the fervently anti-European UK Independence Party could steal its support.

The British public is also turning against the EU. A poll in December found that 56 percent of those surveyed would opt to leave.

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