Prime Minister David Cameron has delivered his once-delayed, much-anticipated speech on his vision for the European Union and Britain. As expected, he offered an "in/out" referendum on the EU - but not within four years.
The Conservative prime minister said on Wednesday that he would authorize a referendum on Britain's EU membership, but only after he was able to renegotiate the terms of membership. Cameron also said that he would only set the wheels in motion once his struggling government won re-election, in a ballot due to take place in 2015 at the latest.
"It will be an in/out referendum. Legislation will be drafted before the next election. And if a Conservative government is elected we will introduce the enabling legislation immediately, and pass it by the end of that year. And we will complete this negotiation and hold this referendum in the first half of the next parliament," Cameron said in a televised speech on Wednesday. "It is time for the British people to have their say. It is time for us to settle this question about Britain and Europe."
The prime minister also said, however, that it wasn't time to settle the issue just yet.
"I understand the impatience of wanting to make that choice immediately. But I don't believe that to make a decision at this moment is the right way forward, either for Britain or for Europe as a whole," Cameron said.
The prime minister said that this vote would only take place once he had renegotiated the terms of British EU membership, and once the bloc's finances stood on sturdier ground. He also praised the free market and other facets of the union, saying that should he attain the desired concessions from Brussels, he would favor Britain staying within the EU.
Cameron said it was crucial for the bloc to adapt in the face of intensified global competition.
"Today, the overriding, the main purpose of the European Union is different - not to win peace, but to ensure prosperity. The challenges come not from within our continent, but outside it," Cameron said, speaking in front of a blue background with the phrase "Britain and Europe" written upon it.
Free market emphasis
The prime minister said "a race for the wealth and jobs of the future" was under way, and that the world's map of influence was changing.
"And these changes are already being felt by the entrepreneur in the Netherlands, the worker in Germany, the family in Britain," Cameron said.
The prime minister also said repeatedly that Britain's decision not to join the single European currency should not impede its ability to benefit from the single market.
The center-left-leaning president of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, was among the first to respond to the speech on Twitter.
"Cameron's Europe a la carte not an option," Schulz wrote. "We have to focus on jobs and growth rather than getting lost in treaties discussions."
In an interview with France Info radio, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius similarly said "we can't have Europe a la carte," also positing that Cameron's plan "risks being dangerous for Britain itself because Britain outside of the Europe, that will be difficult."
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle took on a similar food analogy, saying to Cameron: "Not everything must be regulated in or indeed from Brussels, but a policy of cherry-picking will not work."
The prime minister currently governs in an uneasy ideological coalition with the center-left Liberal Democrats. Cameron is also watching the anti-EU UK Independence Party (UKIP) soar in popularity mainly at the expense of his Conservatives.
"All he's trying to do is kick the can down the road to try to get UKIP off his back," UKIP leader Nigel Farrage said in an interview with the BBC ahead of Cameron's speech.
Cameron was originally scheduled to deliver the speech in Amsterdam last Friday, but he delayed it owing to the hostage situation at an Algerian gas field involving British citizens.
msh/mkg (AFP, AP, dpa, Reuters)