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Mixed reaction to Cameron's promise of referendum on EU membership


07:03, January 24, 2013

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LONDON, Jan. 23 (Xinhua) -- The announcement by British Prime Minister David Cameron of an in/out referendum on British membership of the EU drew mixed reactions in Britain.

Britain's Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, also leader of the Liberal Democrat party which is the junior partner in Cameron's coalition government, criticized Cameron's referendum announcement.

Speaking in a TV interview, Clegg said "years and years of a protracted, ill-defined renegotiation of our place in Europe is not in the national interest. It will hit growth and it will hit jobs."

Commenting on if this disagreement on policy between himself and the Prime Minister meant that the coalition government could no longer work, Clegg said "it is entirely right for the prime minister as leader of the Conservative Party to set out what he wants to put in the Conservative manifesto and what he wants to do if there was a Conservative majority government."

Cameron had originally intended to make his key speech on the EU referendum before Christmas. The timing of the speech on Wednesday set up a set-piece clash in the House of Commons with Ed Miliband, the leader of the main opposition party, at the weekly Prime Minister's Question Time.

"We don't want an in/out referendum," Miliband said.

He criticized Cameron for opposing an in/out referendum in 2011 and now changing his mind.

Miliband said Cameron's promise of a referendum was a reaction to Eurosceptic members of his party, "He is being driven to it not by the national interest but being dragged to it by his party."

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair also said he thought Cameron had made a mistake.

"Why would you want to say here is the prospect of Britain leaving the EU when surely the sensible thing is to band together with allies in order to argue the case for change," said Blair.

Blair said in his interview with BBC radio that he believed it was right to ask for change, but added: "Don't argue it and then say 'If we don't get our way we are going to leave the EU altogether.'"

Britain's Minister for Europe David Lidington said at a briefing after Cameron's speech, "The prime minister has expressed with greater clarity than ever before his strongly held view that it is in the British national interests for Britain to remain an active player in the EU. He has set out a route map for settling the European debate in Britain definitively."

Lidington said he would be listening closely to business leaders over the next few years whether there needs could be met by new legislation or by renegotiating parts of the EU treaty.

He added that British people were now more used to having referendums, with several being held on Northern Ireland, Scottish devolution, city mayors, and police commissioners in recent years, and that it seemed reasonable to offer a referendum on the EU, particular as it had become a more contentious issue.

The leader of Britain's largest organization of industrialists, the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) John Cridland offered support for Cameron's call for renegotiating Britain's EU membership.

"The Prime Minister rightly recognizes the benefits of retaining membership of what must be a reformed EU and the CBI will work closely with government to get the best deal for Britain," he said.

John Longworth, Director General at the British Chambers of Commerce, which represents firms employing over 5 million people said the vast majority of British businesses wanted to stay in the EU Single Market, but also wanted a renegotiation of membership terms to promote trade and competitiveness.

"It is of critical importance to business and to Britain's national interest that we have access to the European market, but not at any cost. On this basis, the Prime Minister's determination to negotiate a new settlement for Britain is the right course of action," Longworth said.

Extending a hand to Cameron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Berlin was ready to discuss with Britain over its wishes on the European Union (EU) and help find a compromise to stop a British exit.

Addressing a joint press conference with visiting African Union President Thomas Boni Yayi, Merkel stressed that "fair compromises" must be found.

"Germany, and I personally, would like Britain to be an important part and an active member of the EU," Merkel said.

However, the German Chancellor also warned in the meantime that caving in to one country would mean caving in to another.

European parliament president Martin Schulz also said: "We need a UK as a fully fledged member, not harboring in the port of Dover."

Paris, meanwhile, slashed at Cameron's "dangerous" referendum promise, saying that Britain could not expect Europe to be an "a la carte" menu, or expect to change the rules of membership just for itself.

"If Britain wants to leave Europe we will roll out the red carpet for you," the minister said, quoting himself in a recent meeting with British businessmen in a riposte to Cameron who last year used the same words to welcome the rich French who seek tax exiles in Britain.

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