DAVOS, SWITZERLAND – As he came face to face with world leaders for the first time since unveiling plans for an EU referendum, British Prime Minister David Cameron insisted Thursday he is not turning his back on Europe.
The global elite who are gathered at the World Economic Forum in Davos discussed issues ranging from the civil war in Syria and the conflict in Mali to the need to counter tax avoidance by multinational corporations.
But the hot topic at the snowy Swiss ski resort was Cameron’s relations with his European Union partners one day after he unveiled his controversial proposal to let the British public vote whether to stay in the bloc.
Cameron held talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the prime ministers of Ireland, Italy and the Netherlands at the annual forum as he tried to win their backing for his plans.
“This is not about turning our backs on Europe — quite the opposite,” Cameron told the audience of business leaders, top politicians and journalists.
“It’s about how we make the case for a more competitive, open and flexible Europe, and secure the U.K.’s place within it.”
His announcement on Wednesday that he wants to renegotiate Britain’s relationship with Brussels and then hold an “in-or-out” referendum on membership by the end of 2017 has delighted his increasingly anti-EU party at home.
European leaders in Davos called on Britain to stay in the 27-nation group and made encouraging noises in public, but there were signs he has a mountain to climb to convince them of his case.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte warned that without the EU, Britain would be “an island somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, somewhere between the United States and Europe.”
Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny said the EU would be “stronger if Britain is part of it.”
Merkel, meanwhile, sidestepped the topic but reached out to Cameron by vowing more action on one of the key reforms he wants for Europe — boosting competitiveness.
“I say this expressly to my colleague David Cameron. You, too, have addressed competitiveness, see this as a central issue to ensure Europe’s prosperity for the future,” she said.
Former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger told the forum that the “idea of European unity needs to be resolved” for the continent to fully recover from the three-year eurozone debt crisis.
But Cameron rejected any idea of a European superstate or of Britain ever adopting the euro and added that he did not agree that “there should be a country called Europe.”
Cameron said in his speech that Britain’s presidency of the Group of Eight leading world economies — Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia and the United States — would focus on tackling tax avoidance.
He said multinational corporations must “pay their fair share” of taxes and that too many businesses were abusing tax schemes.
Looking further afield, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon urged members of the Security Council to “overcome the deadlock” and find a solution to the bloodshed in Syria, where 60,000 people have died over the past 22 months.