Cameron's EU speech soothes some critics, inflames others
(LONDON) - Prime Minister David Cameron won praise Wednesday from his Conservative party for pledging a British referendum on Europe, but critics including ex-premier Tony Blair warned he was playing with fire.
Cameron is under intense pressure from Tories who want to pull back powers from Brussels to London and are anxious about the growing threat posed by the UK Independence Party (UKIP), which wants Britain to withdraw from the EU.
Mayor of London Boris Johnson, a Conservative who has called for a new relationship with Brussels based on trade, welcomed Cameron's promise to strike a new deal with Europe and put it to voters by 2017, saying it was "high time".
"We now have a chance to get a great new deal for Britain that will put the UK at the heart of European trade but that will also allow us to think globally," Johnson said, adding that he expected voters to approve the new terms.
Conservative eurosceptic lawmaker Mark Pritchard told the BBC: "David Cameron is the first British prime minister in nearly four decades to offer the British people a referendum, that is good news."
However, he joined many other commentators in questioning whether Cameron would be able to get what he wants from his European partners.
"The challenge will be whether it is either realistic or achievable to expect our European partners, who want to renegotiate treaties but have a deeper European Union, when we want to see a new treaty and negotiate for a looser European Union," Pritchard said.
Daniel Hannan, a eurosceptic Tory member of the European Parliament, told AFP: "The fact of getting an in-out referendum, which is something I've been campaigning for for 20 years, is a huge transformative event."
He admitted he would like to see the referendum held sooner than 2017 but conceded it would be near-impossible as long as the Conservatives are in a coalition with the pro-Europe Liberal Democrats.
Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister, made clear on Wednesday that he was not happy with Cameron's plan.
"My view is that years and years of uncertainty because of a protracted, ill-defined renegotiation of our place in Europe is not in the national interest because it hits growth and jobs," he said.
His comments reflect concerns expressed by many business leaders, including Martin Sorrell, the head of advertising giant WPP.
Sorrell said a referendum "adds to uncertainty", telling reporters in Davos on Wednesday: "You just added another reason why people are going to postpone investment decisions, and the last thing we need is people postponing more."
Former Labour prime minister Blair, a strong supporter of Europe, warned that Cameron had put a British exit on the table, regardless of his qualified pledge to campaign for continued membership in any referendum.
"If you as a prime minister believe it's right that we stay in, why now put the future of our membership into play?" Blair told BBC TV from Davos, adding: "Once you've put the referendum down you lose control of the issue."
He said he hoped the British people were "pretty sensible" but said that when anyone now asked him about a possible exit, "you've got to say, I hope not, but it's on the table".
His successor, opposition Labour leader Ed Miliband, accused Cameron of putting political interests first.
"He's going to put Britain through years of uncertainty and take a huge gamble on the economy. He's running scared of UKIP, he's given in to his party," Miliband said.
UKIP leader Nigel Farage hailed Cameron's pledge as a success for his party, which has cut into Tory support with its opposition to Europe.
"What the PM said today has defined the national debate about our place in the European Union," he said. "No longer can the case for British withdrawal be confined to the margins.
"The genie is out of the bottle."