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David Cameron: EU Membership Should Be Up To British People


The British people should have their say on their country's continued membership in the European Union - that declaration today from British Prime Minister David Cameron. His speech was welcomed by euro skeptics in Cameron's own Conservative Party, but some EU leaders are furious.

And Britain's American allies may have cause for concern, as Vicki Barker reports from London.

VICKI BARKER, BYLINE: In a speech that was big on breadth, light on particulars, David Cameron pictured a more competitive, flexible and democratic European Union with Britain occupying a newly-won position of strength at its very heart. And if his Conservative Party wins reelection in 2015, Cameron said, the British people will then get to decide if they want all that.

DAVID CAMERON: We will give the British people a referendum with a very simple in or out choice, to stay in the European Union on these new terms or to come out all together.

BARKER: Later, in a raucous session in Parliament, opposition Labour Party leader Ed Miliband charged Cameron has been thrown onto the defensive by the growing U.K. Independence Party. It's been wooing disaffected conservatives with its strong anti-EU stance. Cameron's speech, Miliband said, a mere attempt to throw that dog a bone.

ED MILIBAND: Can he name one thing - just one thing - that if he doesn't get, he'll recommend leaving the European Union?


CAMERON: I don't want Britain to leave the European Union. I want Britain to reform the European Union.


BARKER: Both the Labour Party and Cameron's coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, call renegotiating Britain's place in the EU a gamble not worth taking, not when British business is already grappling with so much economic uncertainty. And several European politicians wondered aloud just how Cameron thought he could go about single-handedly reforming the 27-nation institution.

Sharon Bowles is a member of the European Parliament for Britain's Liberal Democrats.

SHARON BOWLES: I think there is agreement that we do need some reforms within Europe, in particular, to make it more competitive. But it's far better to negotiate those on a multi-lateral basis.

BARKER: French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius is among those who've suggested the EU could and would be open to future reforms. But individual states negotiating their own special relationships to the body? Non, he said.

LAURENT FABIUS: (Through Translator) You can't do Europe a la carte. Imagine Europe as a football club when you join. Once you're in, you can't then say: Let's play rugby.

BARKER: And then there's America. Sir Nigel Sheinwald is a former British ambassador to the U.S. He says the White House relies on Britain to fight its corner at European summits. A British exit would not be in Washington's best interests, Sheinwald said.

SIR NIGEL SHEINWALD: America will be concerned that any loss of British influence will be to their detriment.

BARKER: The next test of British influence will come in two weeks, when EU leaders make a second attempt to agree on a new seven-year budget. Cameron was able to push through several budget cuts in the first round. But this week, Germany and France announced they're working on their own compromise proposals - a possible attempt to freeze out their intractable neighbor across the Channel.

For NPR News, I'm Vicki Barker in London. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Vicki Barker