* Cameron says in-out referendum soon a "false choice"
* He is expected to give major EU speech next week
* Says optimistic about redefining EU-UK relationship
By Mohammed Abbas and Andrew Osborn
LONDON, Jan 14 British Prime Minister David
Cameron on Monday played down the prospect of a referendum any
time soon on whether Britain should leave the European Union,
defying calls from within his Conservative Party and the public.
Cameron is expected to explain how he wants to change
Britain's relationship with the EU next week, in a speech that
could set a course for leaving the 27-member bloc, deepen
fractures within his own party, and strain ties with his Liberal
Democrat coalition partners.
A weekend poll by influential website ConservativeHome found
that 78 percent of Conservative Party members either want
Britain's relationship with the EU reduced to access to its
common market or to leave the bloc altogether.
"If we had an in-out referendum tomorrow, or very shortly, I
don't think that would be the right answer for the simple reason
that I think we would be giving people a false choice," Cameron
told BBC radio.
"Right now I think there are a lot of people who say 'I
would like to be in Europe, but I'm not happy with every aspect
of the relationship, so I want it changed'. That is my view."
Conservative infighting over Europe helped topple previous
party leaders, and splits on the issue appear to be deepening as
Cameron's speech nears. Media reports say he will speak on Jan.
22 or 23 in Germany or in the Netherlands.
Cameron's office declined to confirm the reports.
Communities Secretary Eric Pickles, a Conservative, said on
Sunday he hoped it was in Britain's interest to stay in the EU,
but "we shouldn't stay at any price".
Both pro and anti-Europe senior politicians stepped up their
campaigns over the weekend, with eurosceptic Conservative group
"Fresh Start" pledging to demand a radical repatriation of
powers from Brussels this week.
On the other side of the debate, Conservative Party grandee
Michael Heseltine said on Saturday Cameron's plan to change
Britain's relationship with the EU was an "unnecessary gamble",
and put the country's status as a business destination at risk.
The Lib Dems, the Conservatives' junior partners in
coalition rule, are pro-Europe, and divisions over the issue
threaten to put renewed strain on the partnership.
Cameron says he wants Britain to remain in the EU - a major
trading partner - but is under pressure from an increasingly
eurosceptic public to repatriate powers from Brussels or leave
the bloc altogether.
The anti-Europe UK Independence Party has surged in
popularity in the last year, wooing Conservative voters and
threatening to split the right-wing vote ahead of a 2015 general
election. An opinion poll on Sunday put UKIP ahead of the
Conservatives in next year's European Parliament elections.
Cameron says he plans to renegotiate Britain's ties with the
EU and seek the public's "fresh consent" for the new deal,
telling the BBC he believed he had allies in his efforts to
repatriate powers from Brussels.
He would not be drawn on how he would seek the public's
approval for a prospective new deal, saying only he was "not
against" referendums, though experts expect a promise of some
form of vote after the 2015 national ballot.
"I'm optimistic and confident that we can achieve changes in
the European Union to make sure that Britain feels more
comfortable with our relationship with Europe," he said.
Cameron's official spokesman said on Monday the prime
minister had "friendly and constructive" talks with German
Chancellor Angela Merkel and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte
over the weekend on Britain's approach to the EU.
However, Cameron's speech may have already upset European
colleagues before he has spoken a word, with the Financial Times
reporting that the date of the address may move to Jan. 23 to
avoid clashing with the 50th anniversary celebration of the
Elysee treaty on Jan. 22, a significant date for Germany and
Foreign powers have weighed in on the debate in recent days,
with the United States last week making it clear it wanted
Britain to remain a "strong voice" inside the EU.
However, influential former U.S. ambassador to the United
Nations John Bolton - an ally of Conservative eurosceptics -
urged Britain to re-evaluate its approach to a "sclerotic" EU.
"Re-evaluating Britain's approach toward the listing EU ship
is entirely sensible .... It is simply wrong for Washington to
say that Britain has no choice but to accept the EU as is," he
wrote in an opinion piece in the Times newspaper.