European leaders have sharply criticized British Prime Minister David Cameron's promise to hold an "in-out" referendum on Britain's EU membership.
Cameron's much-anticipated speech on Wednesday ended months of speculation as to Britain's vision for itself within the EU. The British prime minister promised to give Britons a referendum choice on whether to stay in the EU or leave, if his struggling government wins an election that is due to take place in 2015 at the latest.
The Conservative prime minister, who sought to pacify eurosceptics within his own party, argued that asking Britons to cast their votes earlier was too soon. Cameron said that the referendum would only take place once he had renegotiated the terms of British EU membership, and once the bloc's finances stood on sturdier ground.
"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.
Cameron stirs anger
Reaction to the British leader's speech from EU leaders was swift. German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said Britain could not simply "cherry-pick" policies that it liked.
"Germany wants the United Kingdom to remain an active and constructive part of the European Union," he said. "Germany wants an ambitious reform of the economic and monetary union. In such decisive issues as the future of the common currency, we do not need less but more integration."
However, Westerwelle said Germany was not calling on countries to sacrifice all national sovereignty.
The president of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, warned of "piecemeal legislation, disintegration and potentially the breakup of the union" if Britain was allowed to sign up only to the EU policies it agreed with.
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."
Carl Bildt, the Swedish foreign minister, said Cameron's flexible membership idea "sounds fine," but would lead to there being "no Europe at all. Just a mess."
Free market emphasis
In his speech, Cameron 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.
Cameron currently governs in an uneasy ideological coalition with the center-left Liberal Democrats. He 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, jr/dr (AFP, AP, dpa, Reuters)