Prime Minister Ready to Stake Britain's European Role on a Referendum

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Correction Appended

LONDON -- Now, it is David Cameron's turn.

Weighted down by centuries of entrenched wariness in this island nation toward the Continent -- and the knowledge that a gallery of his predecessors as Conservative prime ministers saw their tenures blighted by divisions within the party over the issue -- Mr. Cameron is heading for Amsterdam on Friday to set out his vision of a sharply whittled-down role for Britain in the affairs of 21st-century Europe.

The speech in the Netherlands, carefully chosen as a country with a strong historical friendship with Britain, is a watershed moment for Mr. Cameron, and for Britain. It could be a deeply jarring occasion, as well, for other European nations, which have grown increasingly impatient, angry even, with Britain's policy during the crisis in the euro zone. Some European officials have described as blackmail its use of the crisis -- one that Britain, with the pound, has largely escaped -- to demand a new, "pick-and-mix" status for itself within the 27-nation European Union.

After months of delay, Mr. Cameron is expected to brush aside the warnings of the Obama administration and European leaders and call for a referendum on whether Britain should remain squarely in Europe or negotiate a more arm's-length relationship, most likely before the next Parliament's mandate expires in 2018. In a clamorous House of Commons on Wednesday, the prime minister set out his thinking.

"Millions of people in this country, myself included, want Britain to stay in the European Union," he said. "But they believe that there are chances to negotiate a better relationship. Throughout Europe, countries are looking at forthcoming treaty change, and asking, 'What can I do to maximize my national interest?' That is what the Germans will do. That is what the Spanish will do. That is what the British should do."

For months, Mr. Cameron has been holding off on a promise to explain just what he wants from Europe. As a reformist Conservative pressing ahead with, among other things, a plan to legalize gay marriage, he has scant common ground with the "little Englanders" in his party, the core of about 100 members who make up a third of its representation in Parliament.

But Mr. Cameron can see votes, too, in the strong anti-Europe currents that run wherever people in Britain gather.

In pubs and bars, on radio and in Parliament itself, talk of the European Union tends to center on the bloc's real -- and, in some cases, apocryphal -- abuses: its highhanded, bloated bureaucracy, with nearly 1,000 featherbedded officials earning more than Mr. Cameron's $230,000 salary as prime minister; its endless proliferation of rules on everything from the length of dog leashes to the shape of carrots; the recent claim by a former high-ranking Cameron aide that government ministers spend 40 percent of their time dealing with the mass of pettifogging European "directives," many of them widely ignored elsewhere in Europe.

Not only has Mr. Cameron been hemmed in by deep divisions over Europe within the Conservative Party -- an issue that helped unseat Edward Heath, Margaret Thatcher and John Major as prime ministers -- but he has also been wary of stirring a fresh wave of anger among other European leaders, particularly Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, a center-right politician and onetime ally in European councils.

Her aides have described her as frustrated with Mr. Cameron's maneuvering and, as she is said to see it, his bid to take advantage of other European states as they struggle to save the euro and keep the most debt-laden nations, like Greece, Portugal and Spain, from dropping out of the European Union.

Concern about the reactions in Berlin and Paris prompted a last-minute rescheduling of the Amsterdam speech. Germany and France had protested that the original date, next Monday, might overshadow long-planned celebrations that day of the 50th anniversary of the treaty between them, itself a landmark in the building of postwar Europe, that sealed their reconciliation after the wounds of World War II.

Along with this, commentators say, Mr. Cameron has been recalculating the ways in which the European issue can be managed to bolster the Conservatives' sagging prospects in a general election expected in 2015, in which polls show them lagging as much as 13 percentage points behind the opposition Labour Party. He has also been contending with heavy lobbying by American officials, including President Obama.

The Americans, diplomats say, have told Mr. Cameron squarely in private what made headlines here last week when a senior State Department official, Philip Gordon, who is assistant secretary for European affairs, spoke on the issue with British reporters. Mr. Gordon said a continued "strong British voice" in an "outward-looking" European Union was in America's interests, and warned specifically against the referendum on Europe that is an important component in Mr. Cameron's plans. "Referendums," Mr. Gordon said, "have often turned countries inward."

For all his delaying, his aides say, Mr. Cameron is ready now to outline a strategy for renegotiating Britain's status in the European Union in a way that would keep Britain free from the centralizing forces at work. Other major European states, France and Germany in particular, see a new federal Europe with enhanced powers of fiscal oversight as essential to the long-term survival of the tottering euro.

A referendum, the first on Britain's European Union membership since the one in 1975 that overwhelmingly approved British entry in the union's precursor, the European Economic Community, would aim at settling whether Britain will continue in the union or seek a new role free from the entanglement with European laws, regulations and court rulings that have aroused widespread antipathy among "euro skeptics" in the Conservative Party and elsewhere on the center-right of British politics.

The models for this new Britain, some have said, would be Norway or Switzerland, both outside the European Union, or possibly Singapore, a prosperous island nation.

As a nation that flirted with adopting the euro when the currency was begun in 1999, but chose to stick with the pound, Britain is already outside the core, 17-nation euro zone. Proponents of withdrawal say it could negotiate trading and other economic ties with the European Union that would avert the economic disaster that many center-left politicians and business leaders in Britain say would be the inevitable price of dropping out.

On both sides of the raucous, embittered debate in Britain, a referendum has long been viewed as a nuclear option. Mr. Cameron has said all along that he wants Britain to remain in the European bloc but on terms better suited to Britain's autonomous urges and its desire for a "more flexible, competitive" Europe. He says he believes a referendum on a sparer role for Britain, with the European Union's power to regulate social, legal and financial matters sharply trimmed back, would yield a strong popular mandate for remaining in the union.

For many years, polls in Britain have shown a majority for withdrawal, and Mr. Cameron's critics say his plan could set the country on a "sleepwalk" toward that. With five years of uncertainty before the vote likely to compound the woes, a recession-bound British economy has failed to respond to the harsh austerity measures that the Cameron government has prescribed as the route back to prosperity.

That has been a major theme in the stark warnings in recent days from elder statesmen in the Conservative Party, and from a group of powerful business leaders. Those leaders have argued that the prospect of a referendum, with its threat of choking off European markets accounting for more than half of all Britain's exports of goods and services, could stifle the foreign investment that Britain needs if it is to make major headway in trimming the ranks of its 2.5 million unemployed.

Alan Cowell contributed reporting from Paris, and Stephen Castle from London.

Correction: January 17, 2013, Thursday

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the year that a referendum approving Britain's entry into the European Economic Community, the precursor to the European Union, was held. It was 1975, not 1974.

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This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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