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EU pledge sets election battlelines
The battlelines over Europe for the next general election are becoming clear after Prime Minister David Cameron promised an in/out referendum by 2017 and Labour leader Ed Miliband set his face against it.
The Conservative leader cheered eurosceptics in his party with the move, even though he vowed to campaign "with all my heart and soul" for continued British membership of a reformed EU.
He faces a stiff test of his negotiating powers in Europe after saying he would try to achieve a "new settlement" for Britain which, if the Tories win the planned 2015 election, would be put to voters in a referendum by the mid-point of the next Parliament.
The referendum promise heaped pressure on Mr Miliband, who said in the Commons he was against the referendum, although aides later insisted the option had not been ruled out altogether. There were signs that some in his party were concerned about Labour going into the next election refusing to match Mr Cameron's offer.
The plan also brought divisions within the coalition government to the fore, as Liberal Democrat Deputy PM Nick Clegg said renegotiation was "not in the national interest" and would create damaging uncertainty for business.
In a long-awaited speech in London on Wednesday, 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.
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 in to his party and he can't deliver for Britain."