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Last updated: January 24, 2013 7:36 pm
David Cameron insisted on Thursday that his proposed “new settlement” for the EU would benefit the whole of the union and not just Britain.
The UK prime minister argued that economic reforms and deregulation were unavoidable.
Speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Mr Cameron tried to build support for his approach by arguing that Europe would benefit from a more flexible economy, where powers flowed back to national capitals.
“Let’s negotiate a new settlement for Europe that works for the UK and then let’s get fresh consent for it,” he said. “It’s not just right for the UK. It’s necessary for Europe.”
Mr Cameron pledged this week to hold a referendum on Britain’s EU membership in 2017 if he wins the next general election, a move which delighted his eurosceptic party members.
In Davos he tried to frame his approach as having wider European appeal, holding private meetings with Angela Merkel, German chancellor, Mario Monti, Italy’s premier, and counterparts from Ireland, the Netherlands and Denmark.
Mr Cameron argues that British demands such as the scrapping of the EU’s rules limiting working hours or scaling back environmental rules would help to encourage growth across Europe, as would the completion of the single market.
“Europe is being outcompeted and out-invested and it’s time we made it an engine for growth, not a source of cost for business and complaint for our citizens,” Mr Cameron said. He received a lukewarm reception from a packed main conference hall: other European leaders see Britain’s move as a distraction to the more important issue of ensuring eurozone survival.
But Ms Merkel refused to criticise the prime minister’s referendum plan and, in one of several unprompted positive mentions of the UK, she said Germany and her “friend” Mr Cameron would work together to fight tax evasion.
Mr Cameron plans to use the UK’s presidency of the G8 this year to push for an EU-US trade deal, another area of common agreement between Berlin and London.
The British premier hopes that Ms Merkel will help him secure a new European settlement, on the grounds that Germany wants to keep the UK in the 27-member union as a free-trading ally.
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“This is not about turning our backs on Europe – quite the opposite,” he said. “It is about how we make the case for a more competitive, open and flexible Europe and how we secure Britain’s place in it.”
Mr Cameron said he would campaign “with heart and soul” for Britain to stay in a reformed EU.
While much EU media coverage of his referendum gamble has been negative, Mr Cameron’s move struck a chord with the popular Bild newspaper in Germany, which said: “Crazy Brits. The Brits put Europe into a frenzy.
“Most EU countries have tacitly agreed to build Europe above the heads of the people. Motto: the European project is simply too important for democratic participation. And then along comes this Cameron!”
Nick Clegg, Britain’s deputy prime minister, said Mr Cameron’s proposals for a renegotiation were “vague” and it was “wholly implausible” that a future Conservative government could rewrite the rules to the sole advantage of the UK.
However the pro-European Liberal Democrat leader did not rule out the possibility that he would back Mr Cameron’s call for an in-out referendum, if the 2015 general election propels his party back into a second coalition with Mr Cameron’s Tories.
Mr Clegg, a former European Commission official, told parliament’s House magazine that he found the timetable for a 2017 British referendum “implausible”. The Lib Dem leader said he was “none the wiser” about what powers Mr Cameron might try to repatriate.
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