Global elite to confront British PM on Europe plan

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British Prime Minister David Cameron faced a frosty reception from the global elite at the annual Davos meeting on Thursday after his vow to hold a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU.

The World Economic Forum in the snowy Swiss ski resort will see top politicians and business leaders pursue talks on whether they have seen the back of the global financial crisis.

But that theme threatens to go off-piste, with both Cameron and his finance minister George Osborne due to speak one day after the British leader angered his European partners with his plan for a referendum by the end of 2017.

German Chancellor and EU powerbroker Angela Merkel is also scheduled to address the annual forum, along with a host of other leaders from the 27-nation bloc that Cameron described as needing wide-ranging reforms.

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, Microsoft tycoon Bill Gates and former top U.S. diplomat Henry Kissinger are due to speak on issues affecting the global economy.

But Cameron’s referendum vow has complicated things at a time when the politicians and business leaders at Davos had hoped that Europe’s economy might have finally turned a corner after the three-year eurozone debt crisis.

In a report, the World Economic Forum called on Europe to tackle a “competitiveness deficit” both relative to international competitors and within its own borders.

“Europe’s competitiveness deficit, together with the competitiveness divide that has developed within its own borders, has jointly led to stagnation or declining growth, rising unemployment and fiscal instability,” it said.

International Monetary Fund chief Christine Lagarde said on Wednesday there had been stabilization in the markets while Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti said things had changed from a year ago.

Monti also said that he believed the British public would vote to stay in the EU in any referendum such as the one Cameron promised in his long-awaited speech in London on Wednesday.

Cameron will however be seeking support from fellow European leaders for his plans to renegotiate the terms of Britain’s troubled EU membership before giving the British public a vote on the new agreements.

The European reaction has been cold so far, with the continent’s power couple France and Germany both warning Britain it could not expect to pick and choose its rules.

Cameron -- who speaks at 0930 GMT followed by Osborne four hours later -- will hope Merkel keeps up the conciliatory note she sounded immediately after his speech, saying she was prepared to hear his “wishes” and calling for “compromise”.

Merkel will speak at Davos at 1315 GMT on Thursday, while Monti, Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny, Dutch premier Mark Rutte and their Polish counterpart Donald Tusk are also due to address the forum.

More than 56 business leaders including the chairman of the Standard Chartered bank and chief executive of the London Stock Exchange endorsed Cameron’s position in a letter to Britain’s Times newspaper.

“This is a European policy that will be good for business and good for jobs in Britain,” the signatories said.

A broader global outlook will also feature at Davos on Thursday, however, with Ban, Gates and Jordan’s Queen Rania joining up with Cameron to discuss development goals for the future.

The crisis in Mali, where French forces are helping African troops fight Islamist militants, will also be discussed while Israeli President Shimon Peres and deputy prime minister Ehud Barak are to address the forum.

No formal decisions are taken at Davos but corporate deals are often sewn up on the sidelines and presidents and prime ministers huddle to thrash out pressing issues.

The invitation-only meeting is also known for its informal luncheons and lavish cocktail parties. The flipside is tight security, with around 5,000 police and military guarding the venue and helicopters buzzing overhead.