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U.K. Prime Minister Wants Referendum On EU Membership

Prime Minister David Cameron after his speech on the European Union in central London on January 23.
Prime Minister David Cameron after his speech on the European Union in central London on January 23.

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British Prime Minister David Cameron says that if his government is reelected, he will hold a referendum on his country’s EU membership before 2018.
 
Britain's next national elections are due in 2015. 
 
Cameron made the announcement in a widely anticipated speech in London.

"Today, public disillusionment with the EU is at an all-time high. And there are several reasons for this. People feel that the EU is heading in a direction that they never signed up to," Cameron said. "They resent the interference in our national life by what they see as unnecessary rules and regulation." 
 
The prime minister called for reforms to the 27-nation bloc that include more democratic accountability and more power flowing back to, not away from, member states.

"People also feel that the EU is now heading for a level of political integration that is far outside Britain's comfort zone. They see treaty after treaty changing the balance between member states and the EU and they note they were never given a say," Cameron said.
 
'New Settlement'

Cameron said the European Union must change to promote prosperity and retain the support of its people. He said he wanted to negotiate a “new settlement” regarding Britain’s EU membership.

"Simply asking the British people to carry on accepting a European settlement over which they have had little choice is a path to ensuring that when the question is finally put -- and at some stage it will have to be -- it is much more likely that the British people will reject the EU. That is why I am in favor of having a referendum," Cameron said.
 
He said it would be wrong to hold a referendum “before we have had a chance to put the relationship right.”
 
Talk of such a referendum on Britain’s continued EU membership has caused concern in capitals across Europe and North America.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the EU and Britain must find a compromise.

"When we talk about pushing for your own interests, then, of course, every member country in the European Union has its own interests and Europe also means that you must find fair compromises," Merkel said.

"In this framework, we are prepared to talk about British wishes, but we must always bear in mind that other countries have different wishes and we must find a fair compromise," she added. "We will talk intensively with Britain about its ideas."

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle was much blunter, saying that "cherry-picking is not an option."

French Finance Minister Pierre Moscovici reminded Britain that EU membership is not just about rights but also obligations.

"The United Kingdom has chosen the option to stay in the European Union, that has to be desirable, but it also has special circumstances, it's not a eurozone member state, it is not part of the Schengen area," Moscovici said.

"Europe, as the president of the [French] republic [Francois Hollande] said, cannot just be about rights, there are also responsibilities, obligations," he added. "We don't want a Europe that is limited to the single market but we need common policies. That said, Europe is united but also diverse and it's up to every country to determine for itself."

Cameron's speech was met with criticism within Britain as well.

The leader of the opposition Labour Party, Ed Miliband, said Cameron was taking "a huge gamble" with the British economy.

Business leaders warned that the economy would face a period of uncertainty now that Britain's future in the EU was in doubt.

Last week, U.S. President Barack Obama told Cameron "the United States values a strong U.K. in a strong European Union."
 
With reporting by AP, Reuters, and AFP
 

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