U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron on Wednesday announced Britain would hold a referendum on whether it should leave the European Union if his Conservative Party wins the next election.
His comments prompted a largely angry reaction from European politicians, who condemned Cameron for "playing with fire" and trying to bend the 27-nation bloc to his will.
France’s Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius revealed he had recently told a group of British businessmen that "if Britain wants to leave Europe, we will roll out the red carpet for you," Reuters reported Wednesday.
In the written version of his speech posted on the prime minister’s website, Cameron said people in the U.K. felt the EU was “now heading for a level of political integration that is far outside Britain’s comfort zone” and claimed “democratic consent for the EU in Britain is now wafer thin.”
“People ... resent the interference in our national life by what they see as unnecessary rules and regulation. And they wonder what the point of it all is,” he said.
“It is time for the British people to have their say. It is time to settle this European question in British politics. I say to the British people: this will be your decision,” Cameron added. “And when that choice comes, you will have an important choice to make about our country’s destiny.”
'Charting our own course'
He said that he understood “the appeal of going it alone, of charting our own course.”
“Of course Britain could make her own way in the world, outside the EU, if we chose to do so … But the question we will have to ask ourselves is this: is that the very best future for our country?” Cameron said.
Cameron has talked about renegotiating the U.K.’s relationship with Brussels and told parliament later Wednesday he would campaign to stay in the EU -- if he was successful in reforming it.
But he repeatedly refused to answer questions from Labour Party leader Ed Miliband on how he would vote in the referendum if he was unsuccessful.
Guy Verhofstadt, leader of the Liberal Democrat group in the European Parliament, said Cameron was “playing with fire” by saying he would renegotiate Britain’s membership and hold a referendum, according to ITV News. “He ... is raising false expectations that can never be met,” he said.
And European Parliament President Martin Schulz said the speech was “one of the worst I heard in a long time,” ITV News reported.
Schulz said Cameron was in favor of the single European market but also was also complaining about the regulations that govern it. “So, what does he want -- the internal market or the regulations? … I find what Mr. Cameron is doing very implausible,” he added.
Fabius, the French official, said it was as if Britain had joined a soccer club and then suddenly said "let's play rugby," Reuters reported. And German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said “cherry-picking” what the U.K. liked about the EU and leaving the rest was “not an option.”
Nick Robinson, the BBC’s political editor, wrote that Cameron would never make a “bigger gamble.”
“He is gambling that his referendum promise will calm rather than stir the fury of Eurosceptics both inside and outside his party, that he can persuade 26 other European leaders to give the UK the deal he wants and that voters will then choose to back it,” he said.
“If he pulls it off he will restore [Conservative] Party unity, see off the threat of UKIP, put Labour on the back foot and secure a relationship with the EU which is no longer a political nightmare for him and his party,” he added. “If he doesn't the name Cameron will be added to those of [Harold] Wilson, [Margaret] Thatcher and [John] Major - those whose premierships were destroyed by that most toxic issue in politics - Europe.”