British press weighs up Cameron's pledge for EU referendum

LONDON (AFP) - The British press today broadly welcomed Prime Minister David Cameron's promise of a referendum on EU membership, but warned that the premier had taken a huge political gamble.

Right-leaning newspapers hailed Wednesday's pledge as a deft political move that would pacify the eurosceptic wing of Mr Cameron's Conservative party, which has long been bitterly divided over Britain's relationship with the European Union. "Yes, Prime Minister!" read the jubilant headline of the Daily Mail tabloid, adding: "Now go on and finish the job, Mr Cameron." The Telegraph said it was "an audacious and momentous step, and one deserving of the highest praise".

In Wednesday's long-awaited speech, Mr Cameron vowed to hold a referendum by the end of 2017 giving voters the choice of staying in or leaving the EU if the Conservatives win the next election in 2015.

Mr Cameron said he wanted to renegotiate the terms of Britain's EU membership before putting the new agreement to a vote, sparking criticism from European partners who accused Britain of trying to pick and choose its own rules.

But The Times insisted that "this was a speech with Europe's interests at heart, not only Britain's".

"Mr Cameron has not caused a problem, but elucidated one," the broadsheet said in an editorial. "The rest of Europe must join him in solving it." The newspaper carried a letter from 56 business leaders endorsing Mr Cameron's position, including the chief executive of the London Stock Exchange and the chairman of the Standard Chartered bank.

"This is a European policy that will be good for business and good for jobs in Britain," the signatories said, dismissing warnings from other prominent British business leaders that the looming referendum will create uncertainty.

But the newspaper joined the Financial Times and Guardian in characterising the proposal as a gamble at a time when the 27-member bloc is still reeling from the crisis in the eurozone.