LONDON — Laying out a new, more independent road map for Britain in Europe, Prime Minister David Cameron pledged Wednesday to hold a referendum within five years on continued membership in the European Union, stoking fears in Washington and across the region of a rupture between London and its neighbors.
Cameron's crusade to redefine London's relationship with Europe comes despite warnings from the Obama administration, which has cautioned of the risks of a referendum that could diminish the voice of the leading advocate for U.S. policy in the region. The prime minister's move also cast a shadow on grand dreams of a more deeply integrated Europe and drew sharp criticism from some quarters of the continent, particularly from the French.
The announcement signaled a new course for Britain, a nation that has sought for years to heed Winston Churchill's adage and be "with Europe, but not of it." Although Britain has maintained its own currency, the pound, and stands outside one of the region's major customs treaties, it has remained a full member of the 27-nation EU.
But in what was seen as the most pivotal speech on Europe by any government leader here in decades, Cameron vowed to reclaim sweeping powers from the EU's administrative capital in Brussels, even if Britain stays in the union. Citing growing resentment in Britain of the EU's slow bureaucracy and meddlesome edicts, Cameron declared, "It is time for the British people to have their say."
If Britain did leave the EU, the country could suffer a severe blow as a global banking center and could see its clout in regional affairs and European foreign policy greatly weakened. A British exit would also be a hard setback for the EU, depriving it of an economic and military power.
Cameron acknowledged he thinks Britain is stronger within the EU and should remain part of it.
But he suggested his support for continued membership is contingent on winning exemptions for Britain from some common European labor laws, judicial decisions and other regulations.