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Cameron's EU 'in-or-out' choice denounced as dangerous gamble by Europe leaders

Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron makes a speech on having a referendum on staying in the European Union in London, Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2013.

Matt Dunham/The Associated Press

British Prime Minister David Cameron is hoping he has found a solution to solve the seemingly never ending question of Britain's position in the European Union.  But reaction to his proposal has been largely negative outside Britain with some European leaders denouncing Mr. Cameron for taking a dangerous gamble.

In a long-awaited speech on Britain's future in the EU, Mr. Cameron announced Wednesday that he will try to renegotiate the terms of the country's membership and then hold a public referendum on the new arrangement. However, none of that will happen until after the next election in 2015 and only if Mr. Cameron remains Prime Minister.

"It is time for the British people to have their say," Mr. Cameron said. "It will be a very simple in-or-out choice, to stay in the EU on these new terms or come out altogether,"

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Mr. Cameron acknowledged that Britain's place in the 27-member EU has become increasingly contentious in recent months partly because of the ongoing recession and problems in the Eurozone. Roughly 100 Conservative MPs have been pushing for changes to the EU treaty and a referendum. The United Kingdom Independence Party, Ukip, has also risen sharply in the polls lately by campaigning on pulling Britain out of the EU.

"Today public disillusionment with the EU is at an all-time high," Mr. Cameron said. "The result is that democratic consent for the EU in Britain is wafer thin."

Mr. Cameron said he wants to see a "more flexible, more adaptable, more open" European Union where some powers flow back to member countries. "Countries are different. They make different choices. We cannot harmonise everything," he said. He added that his government is undertaking a kind of audit of EU powers and whether they should remain applicable to Britain. "Nothing is off the table," he said.

Under his plan, after the next election in 2015 the government would attempt to negotiate a new "settlement" for Britain in the EU and then put that new agreement to voters in a referendum. That vote would be held within the first half of the government's five-year mandate.

His plan won some sharp criticism from several politicians across Europe.

"A policy of cherry picking is not an option," German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle told reporters in Berlin today. Bernard Cazeneuve, French European affairs minister, rejected Britain's vision of a "Europe a la carte."

"If Great Britain should decide to scale down its membership or leave the EU, the U.K. must walk this path alone," Danish European Affairs Minister Nicolai Wammen told Bloomberg News. "It's in Denmark's interest to be as close as possible to the core of Europe."

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French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said Mr. Cameron's proposals would be dangerous for the EU and Britain.

"Say that Europe is a soccer club. You join this soccer club, but you can't say you want to play rugby," he told France-Info radio.

In the speech, Mr. Cameron tried to address suggestions that EU members will be reluctant to negotiate changes that only apply to Britain. Many say the EU is already going through a round of treaty changes and that whatever reforms are made should apply to all members, not just one. Mr. Cameron said the EU will be stronger if it is addresses the needs of member states. And he said many other countries want changes too.

He also took on those who argue Britain should simply hold a referendum now, without trying to negotiate changes. That would be a "false choice" he said because the EU is in a state of flux. This is not the time to make such a monumental decision, he added. "If we left the EU it would be a one-way ticket, not a return."

Mr. Cameron stressed that Britain is better off inside a reformed European Union and he added that he is optimistic changes to the treaty can be made. However, he was not clear what would happen if Britain cannot negotiate enough changes and whether that would force him to campaign for the No side in a referendum.

The move carries big political risks for Mr. Cameron. The issue of Britain's position within the EU has dragged on for months, made worse by economic troubles that some  blame on excessive EU regulation. Further uncertainty won't help and may not quell rising opposition to Europe. Other world leaders, including U.S. President Barack Obama, have also urged Mr. Cameron to keep Britain within the EU.

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Labour leader Ed Miliband also criticized Mr. Cameron for catering to political dissent within his own party instead of leading the country.

"He is going to put Britain through years of uncertainty and take a huge gamble with our economy," Mr. Miliband told parliament. "He is running scared of UKIP (the anti-EU UK Independence Party), he has given in to his party and he can't deliver for Britain."

Mr. Cameron's Conservatives are also in a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats who have come out against changing the EU treaty and a referendum. It's not clear how the two parties would address the issue if they formed another coalition government after the next election. Mr. Cameron said he is hoping for a Conservative majority but added that "If I am Prime Minister this will happen."

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, the leader of the Liberal Democrats,  came out against the idea of a referendum. "My view is years and years of uncertainty, because of the protracted ill-defined re-negotiations of our place in Europe, is not in the national interest because it hits growth and jobs," Mr. Clegg said in a statement.

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