DAVOS, Switzerland — British Prime Minister David Cameron wants nothing to do with a United States of Europe, an idea that's gaining currency as the countries that use the euro struggle to fix their debt crisis.
A day after he shook up Europe's political landscape by offering citizens the prospect of a vote on whether to stay in the 27-country European Union, Cameron said Thursday he wants Britain to stay a key part of the bloc but that more unification wouldn't be an answer.
“To try and shoehorn countries into a centralized political union would be a great mistake and Britain would not be a part of it,” he said in a speech at the World Economic Forum in the Swiss resort of Davos.
Over the past few months, many in the EU, particularly among the 17 countries that use the euro, are on a drive for closer unification, and that's raised particular concerns in Britain, which has often viewed the bloc through a business prism.
“If you mean that Europe has to be a political union, a country called Europe, then I disagree,” said Cameron, who insisted he is arguing for a more flexible EU — not to walk out on it. Wednesday, Cameron put an end to speculation by revealing he intends to hold a referendum on Britain's membership of the EU if he wins the next general election, likely in 2015.
But many politicians in Europe think closer political ties are exactly what is needed to maintain continental unity in the face of a debt crisis that's laid bare fundamental flaws in the euro. The European Union, which last year won the Nobel Peace Prize, effectively started amid the rubble of World War II.
Some even think Europe's end-game has to be to resemble the United States of America. Countries tied together in their economic and social fabric to make war inconceivable.
Many of European leaders have accused Cameron of putting the bloc at risk to deal with domestic political problems. His Conservative Party has a hardcore element that is highly skeptical of the EU, while an anti-EU party, the UK Independence Party, is gaining ground in the polls most notably at the expense of his Conservatives.
Italian Premier Mario Monti said Britain should set aside ideology and look at its membership in the EU with “pragmatism, which should be a British attitude of mind.”
He argued that Britons, for all their hostility to EU regulations and bureaucracy, benefit so much from the single market that they would be scared to leave — a ready access to markets and over half a billion people would be a gamble too far.
Most of British business appears to want to stay in the EU but out of the integrationist drive — the question is whether that can be achieved.
“The vast majority of businesses across the UK want to stay in the single market, but on the basis of a revised relationship ..... that promotes trade and competitiveness,” said John Langworth of the British Chambers of Commerce.
He was among 55 British business leaders who issued a public letter to the Times of London on Thursday complaining about demands from Brussels and calling for a “a more competitive, flexible and prosperous European Union that would bring more jobs and growth for all member states.”
Growth is certainly something that Europe is craving. The eurozone as a whole is in recession and figures today are expected to show the British economy, the EU's third-largest, halfway back to its third recession in four years.
Leaders of Italy, Ireland, the Netherlands and Denmark — also in Davos for the gathering of political and business elites — stressed the importance of Britain's place in the EU.
But Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt sees Cameron's budget concerns.
“Every morning we need to get up in the morning and ask, are we spending public money in the right way,” she said. “If we are doing it at the member state level, we should be doing it at the European level as well.”
Britain's relations with Europe have been strained since the end of World War II. It did not join the European Steel and Coal Community, the forebear of what would later become the European Union, in 1951. Britain later realized there were benefits accruing from joining up with some of its wartime friends and foes, and joined the evolving European bloc.