British Prime Minister David Cameron insisted Thursday he was not turning his back on Europe as he came face to face with world leaders for the first time since unveiling plans for a referendum.
In a speech to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Cameron said he would use his country's chairmanship of the G8 to counter tax avoidance by corporations and urged action to curb the threat of terror attacks.
But the global elite gathered in the snowy Swiss ski resort only had ears for Cameron's comments on the European Union, a day after he unveiled his proposal to let the British public vote on whether to stay in the bloc.He held talks with German Chancellor and EU powerbroker Angela Merkel and the prime ministers of Ireland, Italy and the Netherlands on the sidelines of the annual forum to seek support 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 from around the world."It's about how we make the case for a more competitive, open and flexible Europe, and secure the UK'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 at least, in support of Cameron's calls for reforms to make the EU more competitive.
Cameron will need allies in Europe to back his quest to renegotiate Britain's relationship with Brussels before holding a referendum on the new terms.
Dutch premier 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.
Foreign policy guru and former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger told the forum that the "idea of European unity needs to be resolved" if the continent is to make a lasting recovery from the three-year eurozone debt crisis.But the British premier 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".
Britain's finance minister George Osborne backed up the message when he appeared at Davos later, saying: "I'm arguing for reform in Europe and Britain being part of a reformed 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 and increasing transparency in a bid to boost the global economy.
He said corporations must "pay their fair share" of taxes and that too many businesses were abusing tax schemes, after Britain last year announced a crackdown on multinationals such as Starbucks, Google and Amazon.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, Microsoft tycoon Bill Gates and Jordan's Queen Rania are due to share the stage with Cameron on Thursday evening to speak on issues affecting the global economy.
The crisis in Mali, where French forces are helping African troops fight Islamist militants, was also being discussed.
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.