Britain's PM Cameron, in speech at Davos, urges businesses to speak up about EU membership

British Prime Minister David Cameron at the "Britain in the World" session of the World Economic Forum in Davos.
British Prime Minister David Cameron at the "Britain in the World" session of the World Economic Forum in Davos. PHOTO: REUTERS

DAVOS (REUTERS/AFP) - Businesses should speak up about Britain's membership of the European Union now rather than wait for the upcoming referendum campaign, Prime Minister David Cameron said on Thursday (Jan 21).

Mr Cameron told an audience at the World Economic Forum in the Swiss resort of Davos that he had made good progress with his plan to renegotiate Britain's EU ties and hoped a deal could be reached at next month's meeting of EU leaders.

"If business backs my reforms ... I would argue get out there and support those things," he said. "The sooner you can start to look at your own businesses and come up with the examples and the ideas about the benefits and the problems that there are with Europe the more that you are able to help to explain and set the context for this vitally important question."

Mr Cameron said he was still optimistic of securing a deal next month on reforming the European Union, despite suggestions by the French prime minister that it may be too soon.

"I very much hope that we can, with the good will that is clearly there, reach an agreement at the February European council. I would like that," Mr Cameron said.

Mr Cameron is currently in negotiations with European leaders to win support for his four reforms to the bloc, the most difficult of which centres around attempts to restrict welfare benefits to EU migrants.

He will then present a deal to the British public before an in/out referendum promised by the end of 2017, but which could take place as early as June if a deal is struck next month.

Despite positive rhetoric from German and Dutch leaders, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls said Mr Cameron was unlikely to win over fellow EU leaders by the time of their Feb 18 to Feb 19 summit in Brussels, at which France will be represented by President Francois Hollande.

Mr Cameron warned that he was prepared to bide his time if he wasn't happy with the progress of negotiations, a worry for Europhiles who believe that an early referendum increases the chances of Britain staying put.

"If there's a good deal on the table I will take it," he told guests.

"But I do want to be very clear, if there isn't the right deal, I'm not in a hurry, I can hold my referendum at any time up until the end of 2017 and it's much more important to get this right than it to rush it.

"I want to confront this issue, I want to deal with it, I want to put that question to the British people in a referendum and go out and campaign to keep Britain in a reformed EU," he added.