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David Cameron pledges EU referendum
David Cameron says the Tories will hold a referendum on whether Britain should remain a member of the EU if they win the next election
David Cameron has promised an in/out referendum on the UK's membership of the European Union by the end of 2017 if the Conservatives win the next general election.
In a major speech in London, Mr Cameron said that the Conservative manifesto for the 2015 general election will ask for a mandate to negotiate a "new settlement" for Britain in Europe, which will be put to voters in a referendum within the first half of the five-year Parliament.
But the Prime Minister said he will campaign "with all my heart and soul" for Britain to stay in the European Union when the referendum comes. And he warned voters that if the UK did decide to leave, it would be "a one-way ticket, not a return".
Speaking to a business audience in the City of London, Mr Cameron called for a new EU treaty to reshape the 27-nation bloc, resolve the problems of the eurozone, allow the transfer of powers back from Brussels to national governments and make Europe's economy more competitive and its institutions more flexible and democratically accountable.
Mr Cameron said it was his "strong preference" to enact these changes for the whole EU, not just Britain alone. But if other member states are unwilling to go ahead with a new treaty, Mr Cameron said he was ready to renegotiate the UK's position to achieve a settlement "in which Britain can be more comfortable and all our countries can thrive".
Standing in front of a backdrop with the slogan "Britain and Europe", Mr Cameron said: "The next Conservative manifesto in 2015 will ask for a mandate from the British people for a Conservative government to negotiate a new settlement with our European partners in the next Parliament."
Saying it was time for the British people to have their say and "settle this European question in British politics", he added: "It will be a relationship with the single market at its heart. And when we have negotiated that new settlement, we will give the British people a referendum with a very simple in or out choice. To stay in the EU on these new terms or come out altogether. It will be an in/out referendum. Legislation will be drafted before the next election. And if a Conservative Government is elected we will introduce the enabling legislation immediately and pass it by the end of that year."
Wednesday's speech, which has been six months in the planning and was postponed from last week because of the Algerian hostage crisis, comes amid growing Tory backbench concern about the rising tide of support for the UK Independence Party (Ukip), which has recorded poll ratings of 10% or more with its call for an immediate in/out poll.
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said that a renegotiation of Britain's position in Europe was not in the national interest and would lead to years of uncertainty for business. He said: "The biggest challenge which is facing our country is that we have a fragile economy which is taking time to recover.
"That's why my priority, certainly the priority of the Liberal Democrats, is to build a stronger economy in a fairer society. Now, that job is made 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."