LONDON • Prime Minister David Cameron has warned that Britain could leave the European Union (EU) if it does not get the reforms it wants before a "once-in-a-generation" referendum to settle its troubled relationship with Europe.
In a major speech outlining Britain's demands for change following pressure from EU leaders, Mr Cameron warned yesterday he was ready to "think again" about Britain's membership if he could not strike a deal with Brussels and the bloc's 27 other member states.
But in a sign of the British premier's looming tussle, the European Commission immediately responded, saying it deemed parts of Mr Cameron's EU renegotiation objectives "highly problematic".
Mr Cameron's comments came as he sends a long-awaited letter to EU president Donald Tusk laying out Britain's shopping list for change to avert a "Brexit" in a vote due to be held by 2017 at the latest.
"The referendum... will be a once-in-a-generation choice," Mr Cameron said.
The referendum... will be a once-in-a- generation choice. This is a huge decision for our country - perhaps the biggest we'll make in our lifetime.
BRITISH PRIME MINISTER DAVID CAMERON, on vote to be held by 2017
"This is a huge decision for our country - perhaps the biggest we'll make in our lifetime."
He said he had "every confidence" of securing an agreement but added that he would not rule out campaigning for a "Brexit".
Mr Cameron's demands in the letter include legally binding guarantees that the 19 EU members who use the euro currency will not club together and force decisions on Britain that affect its economy.
The British leader also wants to reduce migration from the EU into Britain by removing the right to freedom of movement for nationals of new EU member states until their economies have "converged much more closely" with those of existing members.
"Prima facie, we see a number of elements which appear to be feasible, like finding ways to increase the role of national parliaments; some issues which are difficult, like ever-closer union and the relation between euro ins and outs," commission spokesman Margaritis Schinas said.
"And some things which are highly problematic as they touch upon the fundamental freedoms of our internal market. Direct discrimination between EU citizens clearly falls into this last category," he added.
"The commission considers the prime minister's letter as the beginning, not the end, of the negotiations. And as President (Jean- Claude) Juncker has repeatedly said, we stand ready to work for a fair deal with Britain that is also fair for all the other member states."
Mr Tusk said he would start talks with other EU nations next week.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said yesterday she was "reasonably confident" that a deal could be found with London to avert the possibility of Britain leaving the EU.
"There are some difficult (demands), others that are less difficult, but if we adopt the spirit that we can resolve this, then I am reasonably confident that we can succeed," she said after Mr Cameron laid out his proposals.
Next month sees a crunch European summit in Brussels at which Britain's demands will be discussed, but Mr Cameron's Europe Minister David Lidington has played down the likelihood of getting a deal at that stage.