British Prime Minister's EU-Skeptic Speech Leads European News Coverage

David Cameron - The Prime Minister Leaves Downing Street - 2011
Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

TV networks and newspaper sites are full of debate about David Cameron's vow to modify Britain's relationship with Europe and hold an EU referendum.

LONDON -- News coverage across Europe on Wednesday was dominated by reports and debate about Britain's long-strained relationship with the EU.  

In a long-awaited speech here, British Prime Minister David Cameron early Wednesday outlined plans to modify the terms of U.K. membership in the European Union. He vowed that, if he wins the 2015 election here, his country will renegotiate its EU deal to take back decision-making powers in some areas currently handled by the union.

Voters could then decide on the new agreement between Britain and the EU in a referendum by the end of 2017, he said.

STORY: Doomsday: How the World’s Media Is Covering the Mayan Apocalypse

"The biggest danger to the European Union comes not from those who advocate change, but from those who denounce new thinking as heresy," Cameron said in the speech at the Bloomberg headquarters building here. "In its long history, Europe has experience [with] heretics who turned out to have a point."

Britain has always had a special role inside the EU, as it has often opted not to join union-wide initiatives. It also isn't, for example, using the common currency, the euro.

STORY: BBC Director General Quits: How the U.K. Media Covered It

In the U.K., where the country's relationship with the EU has long been debated, TV news shows and networks were full of news and debate about the speech on Wednesday, and newspapers in many cases led their home pages with the coverage.

Tabloid The Sun, part of Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., made the news one of its lead stories. "'In or Out' it's YOUR shout," it titled. "PM promises nation chance to leave EU within FIVE years."

Calling it "a historic pledge," it emphasized that the referendum "will be the first chance an unhappy nation will have to make its voice heard on the EU in 38 years."

Added the tabloid: "And it answers The Sun's decade-long campaign to finally give the country its say." It ran a poll on its web site on whether the U.K. should stay in the EU or leave it, promising to reveal the results on Thursday.

News Corp.'s other big U.K. paper, The Times of London, played the news more down the middle. "Cameron pledges in-out referendum on Europe," the headline on one early story said.

An analysis piece on the Times site, meanwhile, said that the U.K. demand "could open Pandora’s box." It argued: "The desire to keep Britain inside the EU will lead other countries to give ground. The danger is that they will all seek their own special terms."

Public broadcaster BBC and the BBC News channel focused on covering the speech and reactions in neutral ways.

Sky News also devoted much time to the Cameron comments and highlighted sharp responses from other British politicians. "Cameron Promises 'In-Out' EU Referendum," the lead story on its homepage said midday. "The PM's pledge goes down a storm with [conservative members of parliament], but [coalition partner] Nick Clog and [opposition Labour Party leader] Ed Miliband accuse him of sparking years of uncertainty."

"David Cameron calls for UK exemption from EU's 'ever-closer' union," the Guardian titled on its site. "Prime minister strikes at heart of the European project in speech setting out his plans for an 'in or out' referendum by 2017."

Across Europe, Cameron's speech also attracted attention. And it drew sharp criticism from both continental media and politicians.

In Germany, the Cameron comments dominated early Wednesday news coverage.

"Will Britain destroy the EU?" exclaimed a typically alarmist headline on the homepage of leading German tabloid Bild. "Cameron is playing with fire," it said in an op-ed piece, arguing that the Euro-sceptic speech by the British prime minister amounted to "fighting words" and a challenge to the very structure of the European Union.

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle seemed to echo that sentiment, warning Cameron that Britain can't "cherry pick" the things it likes about the EU, such as free movement of goods and services, while opting out of the items -- workplace regulations and agriculture subsidies, for example -- it doesn't.

In Austria, newspaper Der Standard led its homepage with the news under the headline "Referendum About EU Exit: Europe United Against Cameron's Plans."

In France, news channels such as France24 covered the speech and its implications in their regular programming.

Le Figaro featured the news as the top story on its homepage midday Wednesday, categorizing the Cameron speech as a "showdown with his European partners."

On Le Monde's site, it was not the top story, falling behind the latest on big French debates about the country's military action in Mali and about gay marriage.
Le Monde's story said Cameron had "yielded to his party's Euroskeptic camp." But an editorial used the headline: "The United Kingdom has no interest in leaving the EU." The editorial did, however, acknowledge that the "marriage" between the U.K. and the EU was "without love," even though the paper's experts did not expect it to end in divorce.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius in an interview with Radio France that was widely quoted by other European media outlets harshly criticized the speech, saying that the U.K. could not take "Europe a la carte." He also compared Cameron's views to sports fairness. "We are like a soccer club, and if you want to join the soccer club, you can't then say you want to play rugby," he said.

Leading Spanish paper El Pais said the British prime minister had "opened a Pandora's Box" with his Europe speech and warned his promise of a British referendum on the EU in 2015 was a "huge gamble" that might be seen by the U.K.'s European partners as an attempt to blackmail them into reforms Cameron wants.

Stuart Kemp, Scott Roxborough and Rhonda Richford contributed to this report.


Twitter: @georgszalai