LONDON // David Cameron, the British prime minister, yesterday pledged to hold a referendum on his country's future in the European Union by the end of 2017.
In a long-awaited speech, he acknowledged that support in Britain for continued membership of the EU appeared to be wafer thin.
He said that while he was not a British isolationist, and wanted a relationship between Britain and the EU "that keeps us in it", the issue needed to be addressed.
"It is time to settle this European question in British politics," Mr Cameron said at the London offices of Bloomberg.
He wants to renegotiate key aspects of Britain's relationship with Europe, including labour, environmental and judiciary legislation.
The result of those negotiations - a "real choice between leaving or being part of a new settlement in which Britain shapes and respects the rules of the single market but is protected by fair safeguards" - was what he promised to take to a popular vote, no later than halfway through the next parliamentary term, if he is still prime minister after next general election in 2015.
But he went further than merely arguing for British exceptionalism. He said he wanted a reformed union with a more "flexible, adaptable and open" relationship between all members.
"Far from unravelling the EU, this will in fact bind its members more closely because such flexible, willing cooperation is a much stronger glue than compulsion from the centre," he said.
Mr Cameron's speech was widely welcomed by members of his Conservative Party, traditionally home to strong Eurosceptic feelings.
Boris Johnson, the London mayor and a potential Conservative leadership rival, said the speech had been "bang on". Lord Norman Lamont, a former Conservative chancellor of the exchequer, commended a performance he said would appeal to a "very large section of the British people who are uneasy about our position in Europe".
But it received a frosty reception overseas. Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, said she was "prepared to speak about British wishes" but that a compromise had to be found that was fair for all.
Her foreign minister, Guido Westervelle, was more blunt, warning Britain that, "cherry-picking is not an option". That message was echoed by Martin Schulz, the speaker of the European Parliament, who said Mr Cameron's "Europe a la carte" was off the menu.
French politicians went further. Laurent Fabius, the foreign minister, said Britain could not join a football club and say, "let's play rugby". "It could be dangerous for the UK," he added. "The UK outside Europe? Difficult."
Mr Cameron has also caused rancour within his own government coalition. His promise to hold a referendum is predicated on still being prime minister after 2015 and he may need to secure an outright majority then to achieve that.
Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister and leader of the Liberal Democrats, with which Mr Cameron's party formed a ruling coalition after the last election, has said his party would not join a coalition with a party that wanted a renegotiation with Europe.
"We should always be governed by what's in the national interest, and my view is that years and years of uncertainty because of a protracted, ill-defined renegotiation of our place in Europe is not in the national interest because it hits growth and jobs," said Mr Clegg.
Ed Miliband, the Labour leader and head of Britain's opposition, said he opposed the referendum.
He also pressed Mr Cameron during parliamentary question time about whether he would still support EU membership should he fail to secure concessions during the negotiations. Mr Cameron would only say that he supported membership of a "reformed EU".
There is little mood in Europe to reform on account of Britain, said Petros Fassoulas, the chairman of European Movement UK, an organisation that calls for closer integration with the EU.
He said commentators had questioned Mr Cameron's wisdom in "putting a gun to the head" of the EU, one which he described as more of a "water pistol". "The kind of renegotiation he is after is not really on the table," he said. "So it is entirely possible that he will come out completely unsuccessful, in effect pointing the country toward the exit as a result."
The UK was "vastly overstating" its renegotiation capacity, said Ulrike Guerot, a senior policy fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations.
On peripheral issues, she said, the EU might accommodate London.
"But on the very important strategic issues, on the necessity of the euro, on climate, on the big global things - no," she added.
She said, however, a referendum might be the cathartic moment Britain needed to finally have a "serious debate" about its role the EU.