London: British Prime Minister David Cameron Thursday pledged to offer citizens a vote on whether to leave the European Union if his party wins the next election, prompting rebukes from European leaders accusing the premier of putting the bloc's future at risk over domestic politics.
Claiming that public disillusionment with the 27-nation EU is "at an all-time high," Cameron used a long-awaited speech in central London to say that the terms of Britain's membership in the bloc should be revised and the country's voters should have a say.
Cameron proposed that his Conservative Party renegotiate the UK's relationship with the EU if it wins the next general election, expected in 2015.
"Once that new settlement has been negotiated, we will give the British people a referendum with a very simple in-or-out choice to stay in the EU on these new terms. Or come out altogether," Cameron said.
The speech was seen by many as a gamble to shore up support for Cameron's fractured, increasingly anti-EU party that risked antagonising other countries focused on stemming the eurozone debt crisis.
The fiercely independent island nation has never been an enthusiastic member of the bloc, seeing itself as culturally different and baulking at having policy dictated by Brussels.
But the drumbeat has grown over fears that new EU regulations to address the debt crisis will further restrict the country's control over its own economic policies.
Many EU member states, which had in the run-up to the speech stressed the importance of Britain's presence in the bloc, took a sharper tone after Cameron had spoken.
Martin Schulz, the president of the European Parliament, said Cameron was playing "a dangerous game," and accused him of playing domestic politics.
Britain does not use the euro currency, but membership of the EU has given the UK access to the massive joint European market and the country has also benefited from EU funds to build infrastructure such as broadband networks.
Cameron stressed that his first priority is renegotiating the EU treaty, not leaving the bloc and said that a new EU treaty should, among other things, reshape the bloc, protect and complete the single market and make Europe's economy more competitive.
Chancellor Angela Merkel said Germany is "of course prepared to talk about British wishes, but we must always bear in mind that other countries have other wishes".
But even as he raised the spectre of a referendum, Cameron reiterated his view that Britain should stay in the EU.
"There is no doubt that we are more powerful in Washington, in Beijing, in Delhi because we are a powerful player in the European Union," Cameron said.
First Published: Thursday, January 24, 2013, 18:41