British Prime Minister David Cameron insisted on Thursday he was not turning his back on Europe as the global elite at the annual Davos meeting gave his referendum plans a frosty reception.
Cameron was meeting world leaders and business chiefs at the World Economic Forum in the snowy Swiss ski resort for the first time since a speech on Wednesday revealing plans to let Britons vote on EU membership.
Cameron said urgent reforms were needed to make the EU more competitive but said he wanted Britain to remain in the bloc. This is not about turning our backs on Europe — quite the opposite, he said. It's about how we make the case for a more competitive, open and flexible Europe, and secure the UK's place within it.
But Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte indicated the scale of the mountain that Cameron must scale to persuade EU leaders to support his plans to renegotiate Britain's EU membership and then hold a referendum by the end of 2017.
A UK outside the EU would be an island somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean between the United States and Europe, Rutte told the forum.
Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny took a more conciliatory tone, saying the 27-member bloc would be stronger if Britain is part of it.
Whatever happens, I would like to see that Britain would remain central to the European Union. It's very important in the global sense, Kenny told the forum.
Foreign policy guru and former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger meanwhile said that for Europe the idea of European unity needs to be resolved if it was to make a lasting recovery from the three-year Euro zone debt crisis.
But Cameron, whose country does not use the Euro, rejected any call for greater political union, saying: A centralized political union? Not for me, not for Britain.
Cameron ducked questions about how he would persuade his European partners to back his plans, saying that he was proposing not just change for Britain but also change for Europe.
He rejected suggestions however that uncertainty could deter foreign businesses from investing in Britain and insisted that being frank and open would actually benefit business.
Cameron said British business leaders — including more than 50 who wrote a letter to the Times newspaper on Thursday — say that this is a sensible approach.
His words also chimed with a report by the World Economic Forum published on Thursday which urged the EU to tackle a competitiveness deficit to make a lasting recovery from the Euro-zone debt crisis.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel warned on Thursday against easing off on painful reforms in Europe, saying the bloc must ensure it took full advantage of its debt crisis to modernize and boost its competitiveness.
The political experience is that often you need pressure for political structural reforms, Merkel said during her keynote speech.
My conclusion is therefore that if Europe is in a difficult situation today, we must implement the structural reforms today so we can live better tomorrow.