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PM's EU vote plan divides coalition

David Cameron has vowed to campaign "with all my heart and soul" for continued British membership of a reformed EU in an in/out referendum which will be staged by 2017 if Conservatives win the next general election.

The Prime Minister was cheered by Tory backbenchers as he arrived at the House of Commons after announcing that his party's election manifesto will seek a mandate to negotiate a "new settlement" for Britain, which will be put to voters in a referendum by the mid-point of the next Parliament.

But the plan brought divisions within the coalition government to the fore, as Liberal Democrat Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said renegotiation was "not in the national interest" and would create damaging uncertainty for business.

Labour leader Ed Miliband said that jubilant Conservatives wanted Britain out of the EU, and accused the Prime Minister of taking a "huge gamble" with the economy because he was "running scared" of the UK Independence Party (Ukip) and his own backbenchers.

But the referendum promise heaped pressure on Mr Miliband, who appeared in the Commons to rule out Labour offering the public a vote. Shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander later sought to clarify his leader's stance, insisting Labour had "never said never" to a referendum, but did not think it was right to promise one now.

In a long-awaited speech in London, Mr Cameron said he wanted a new treaty to reform the EU for all its members, but was ready to demand a renegotiated status for Britain alone if other nations did not agree.

Draft legislation will be drawn up by the Conservative Party ahead of the election, and will be enacted by the end of 2015 if Tories win to pave the way for renegotiation and referendum within the next two years, he said.

"It is time for the British people to have their say," Mr Cameron said.

"It is time to settle this European question in British politics."

But there were immediate questions over whether other EU states would be prepared to agree special terms for the UK.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she was ready to find a "fair compromise", but cautioned that Britain must recognise that other countries would have wishes of their own.

Her foreign minister Guido Westerwelle warned that "cherry-picking is not an option", while his French opposite number Laurent Fabius said there could be no "a la carte" membership for the UK.

At Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons, Mr Miliband demanded to know whether Mr Cameron would vote for British exit if he failed to achieve his negotiating goals.

"He is going to put Britain through years of uncertainty and take a huge gamble with our economy," Mr Miliband told MPs.

"He has been driven to it not by the national interest, he has been dragged to it by his party...

"He is running scared of Ukip and has given into his party and he can't deliver for Britain."

Mr Cameron told MPs that Mr Miliband had failed to produce a clear policy on Europe: "We want a renegotiation and then a referendum.

"What does he want? Or doesn't he know?"

His challenge prompted the Labour leader to reply: "We do not want an in/out referendum."

In his address, Mr Cameron said a new EU treaty should be driven by the five key principles of competitiveness, flexibility, return of powers to national governments, democratic accountability and fairness.

Crucially, he said it was time for the EU to ditch the universal commitment to "ever closer union" and accept that members can decide for themselves how deeply they want to integrate.

The completion of the single market should be Europe's "driving mission", while the EU should be required to justify the expansion of the Commission and other institutions.

"Nothing should be off the table" when it comes to returning powers from Brussels to national governments over issues like the environment, social affairs, crime and working hours, he said.

"When the referendum comes, let me say now that if we can negotiate such an arrangement, I will campaign for it with all my heart and soul," said Mr Cameron.

"Because I believe something very deeply.

"That Britain's national interest is best served in a flexible, adaptable and open European Union and that such a European Union is best with Britain in it."

Mr Cameron's address was hailed as "bang on" by Conservative London Mayor Boris Johnson, who said he had "no doubt" the British people would vote for the kind of renegotiated membership the Prime Minister envisaged.

But Mr Clegg said economic recovery would be "all the harder if we have years of grinding uncertainty because of an ill-defined, protracted renegotiation of Britain's status within the European Union".

"That, in my view, will hit growth and it will hit jobs and that's why, in my view, it's not in the national interest," the Lib Dem leader said.

Asked whether a referendum would be a deal-breaker if there was a need to form a new coalition in 2015, Mr Cameron said: "I am fighting for and arguing for a Conservative majority government at the next election.

"I'm confident that we can achieve that but let me be absolutely clear - if I am Prime Minister this will happen."

Ukip leader Nigel Farage said the speech meant that "the genie is out of the bottle" on Europe.

"No longer can the case for British withdrawal be confined to the margins," Mr Farage said.

"Whilst Ukip regards today's speech as its greatest achievement to date, the real work for our party has only just begun."

Former Prime Minister Tony Blair said Mr Cameron had put himself in the position of a gunman in a stand-off threatening to blow his own brains out.

Mr Blair told BBC Radio 4's World At One: "It reminds me a bit of the Mel Brooks comedy Blazing Saddles where the sheriff... holds a gun to his own head and says 'If you don't do what I want I'll blow my brains out'.

"You want to watch one of the 26 don't just say 'Well, OK, go ahead'."

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