British Prime Minister David Cameron.  Picture: REUTERS
British Prime Minister David Cameron. Picture: REUTERS

LONDON — Prime Minister David Cameron won praise from sections of his Conservative party on Wednesday for pledging a vote on the UK’s European Union (EU) membership, but faced charges of risking the economy with more uncertainty.

Mr Cameron is under intense pressure from Tories who want to pull back powers from Brussels, and are anxious about the growing threat posed by the UK Independence Party (Ukip), which wants the UK to leave the EU.

London mayor Boris Johnson, a Conservative who has called for a new relationship with Brussels based on trade, welcomed Mr Cameron’s promise to strike a new deal with Europe and put it to voters by 2017, saying it was "high time". "We now have a chance to get a great new deal for Britain that will put the UK at the heart of European trade but that will also allow us to think globally," he said, adding that he expected voters to approve the new terms.

Conservative eurosceptic legislator Mark Pritchard told the BBC: "Credit where it’s due: David Cameron is the first British prime minister in nearly four decades to offer the British people a referendum, that is good news." But he joined many other commentators in questioning whether Mr Cameron could get what he wants from his European partners.

"The challenge will be whether it is either realistic or achievable to expect our European partners, who want to renegotiate treaties but have a deeper EU, when we want to see a new treaty and negotiate for a looser EU."

Eurosceptic Tory member of the European Parliament Daniel Hannan said: "The fact of getting an in-out referendum, which is something I’ve been campaigning for for 20 years, is a huge transformative event." He said he would like to see the referendum held sooner than 2017 but conceded it would be near-impossible as long as the Conservatives are in a coalition with the pro-Europe Liberal Democrats.

Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister, made it clear on Wednesday that he was not happy with Mr Cameron’s plan. "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," he said.

His comments reflect concerns expressed by many business leaders, which were reiterated on Wednesday by Martin Sorrell, the head of advertising giant WPP.

A referendum "adds to uncertainty", Mr Sorrel said at the World Economic Forum in Davos. "You just added another reason why people are going to postpone investment decisions."

Mr Cameron insisted that the eurozone crisis meant the issue of reform was already on the table — and voters had to be consulted.

But opposition Labour leader Ed Miliband accused him of putting political interests before those of the country. "He’s been driven to it not by the national interest but been dragged to it by his party," Mr Miliband said. "He’s running scared of Ukip."

Ukip leader Nigel Farage hailed Mr Cameron’s pledge as the result of his party’s campaigning. "What the PM said today has defined the national debate about our place in the European Union," he said. "No longer can the case for British withdrawal be confined to the margins."

Sapa-AFP