LONDON — Prime Minister David Cameron will make a long awaited speech on how he thinks Britain's relationship with the EU should change, a move that many fear could backfire and leave Britain increasingly isolated in Europe.
Britain's relationship with the European Union has been fraught since the creation of the bloc.
Several Conservative leaders ahead of Cameron, including Margaret Thatcher and John Major, have all tried to carve out more sovereignty for Britain inside the EU.
The question is whether Cameron's speech Friday will answer how he proposes renegotiating Britain's relationship with the EU and whether that bartering will result in Britain's ultimate exit from the bloc.
Many view the speech, which will be delivered in the Netherlands, as an attempt to shore up support from euroskeptics in Cameron's Conservative Party. But with the EU largely focused on stemming its debt crisis, playing to internal politics could backfire and anger nations like Germany, which has taken a lead in untangling Europe's economic woes.
"The U.K. at the moment is marginalizing itself in the European debate," said Fabian Zuleeg, chief economist at the Brussels-based European Policy Center think tank. "The debate is very Britain centric, there is very little consideration of what other countries might think about this."
A chorus of international voices from Brussels to Berlin has been quick to stress the importance of Britain's presence in the EU and offer thinly veiled warnings about potential consequences.
Even the U.S., which normally stays out of disputes among EU states, has weighed in on the debate.
"We have a growing relationship with the EU as an institution, which has an increasing voice in the world, and we want to see a strong British voice in that EU," said Philip Gordon, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs. "Every hour at a summit spent debating the institutional make-up of the European Union is one hour less spent on how to deal with the common issues of jobs, growth and international peace around the world."
One German lawmaker, Gunther Krichbaum, warned Cameron not to "blackmail" Europe and said any vote on EU membership would isolate Britain. Chair of the Bundestag's foreign affairs committee, Ruprecht Polenz, said he "would recommend that our friends in Britain take a proper look at how closely Britain is linked economically and politically to what they call the continent, and what would happen if you cut all those links."
Making demands on key trading partners isn't expected to get much traction, said economist Jeffrey Frankel, a professor at Harvard's Kennedy School.
"The euro is fighting for its life, and now there are these nuisance demands from Britain," Frankel said. "There's presumably not much support for any specific demands he might make."
Cameron is also struggling to win back voters who abandoned the party in favor of the UK Independence Party, which advocates EU withdrawal. Britain's next general election is scheduled for 2015.
But Cameron's speech could set off a chain of events beyond his control.
The president of the European Parliament Martin Schulz compared the situation to a German poem about a sorcerer's apprentice who calls forth spirits who thwart his plans in the end.
"David Cameron would do well not to feed the spirits he has called," Schulz said Wednesday in Strasbourg.
By deciding to take on Europe, Cameron has drawn comparisons to Thatcher, who often seemed at odds with her own government's policy of developing European integration. The dispute contributed to her downfall.
While many expect Cameron to announce a possible referendum on Britain's future in the EU, the prime minister has offered few specifics on what he'll address in Friday's speech.
That vagueness coupled with a long run-up to the speech could hurt Cameron's future, according to EU expert Iain Begg, a professor at the London School of Economics.
"He's talked himself into a trap," Begg said. "By signaling this speech for several months euroskeptics are anticipating specifics. At the same time, he has to appear reasonable to his European partners and therefore say nothing."