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British Premier Cameron warns of tough times for EU ahead of UK referendum on membership

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RIGA, Latvia — British Prime Minister David Cameron set off Friday on a whirlwind campaign to change the way the European Union is run, warning of a rough road ahead to achieve the reform needed to keep his country from leaving.

Ever the halfhearted EU member, Britain now wants to cut back the political powers the EU has over member states on sensitive issues like welfare and immigration.

Cameron has pledged to hold a national vote before the end of 2017 on whether Britain should leave the EU. If there is no reform, he has indicated there could be a Brexit, the term for a potential British exit.

"I've always said that if I don't get what I think I need, I rule nothing out," Cameron said Friday.

But no other nation is actively seeking such profound change, and many maintain that a united voice and common policies are the way ahead.

"I am not going to say I was met with a wall of love when I arrived," Cameron said.

In his first meeting with EU counterparts since his election victory earlier, Cameron said his reform drive will certainly stir up emotions.

"One day you are going to hear this is possible. Then you are going to hear that it's completely impossible. You hear the Germans say 'no' and the French say 'yes,' and the Italians say. You're going to hear loads of stuff," he said.

PHOTO: British Prime Minister David Cameron, right, speaks during a media conference at the conclusion of the Eastern Partnership summit in Riga, Latvia on Friday, May 22, 2015. EU leaders gathered for a second day of meetings with six post-communist nations to discuss various issues, including enlargement, the economy and Ukraine. (AP Photo/Mindaugas Kulbis)
British Prime Minister David Cameron, right, speaks during a media conference at the conclusion of the Eastern Partnership summit in Riga, Latvia on Friday, May 22, 2015. EU leaders gathered for a second day of meetings with six post-communist nations to discuss various issues, including enlargement, the economy and Ukraine. (AP Photo/Mindaugas Kulbis)

He has already had several bilateral meetings at the EU-Eastern Partnership summit and will visit French President Francois Hollande Thursday and German Chancellor Angela Merkel next Friday.

The issue is one of the most important facing his government in the next five years and will likely start to increasingly affect the workings of the EU.

Some EU leaders have acknowledged they share some of his concerns, but have insisted that allowing people to travel freely across the EU's 28 nations remains a cornerstone of their policies, whatever the British objections.

"Freedom of movement is the core value of the European Union," Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite said.

Cameron said the issue was not so much people coming to Britain as them getting access to the welfare system too easily, and that Europe must be able to address it.

Hollande said it is up to Britain to do the heavy lifting if it wants to push through change.

"We ask for nothing. Europe is not concerned by a vote," the French president said.

Britain's industry and services sector stands to lose billions in trade if the country leaves the EU. Europe would also lose if Britain departs, leaving the continent with much less diplomatic and military clout.

"In the end, it is in everybody's interest" to avoid a breakup, Cameron said. "Britain benefits from being in a reformed EU. But I think a reformed European Union will benefit from having Britain in it."

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