BRITISH Prime Minister David Cameron wants to hold an in-out referendum on Britain's membership of the EU earlier than 2017, one of his ministers has indicated.
David Lidington, Britain's Europe minister, said that Mr Cameron would "welcome" an early referendum.
Mr Lidington also said that negotiations with Brussels are "picking up pace" and that he is demanding "serious reform" from European leaders.
The Europe minister is the first senior figure in the Conservative government to suggest that an early in-out referendum is now a possibility.
Mr Cameron went into the general election promising to reform Britain's relationship with Brussels before holding the referendum before the end of 2017. He has already started holding talks with European leaders over his plans for renegotiation and will next month hold face-to-face discussions with Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor.
Mr Lidington said: "There will be tough and difficult negotiations but I think there is growing recognition around the continent that Europe cannot go on the way it has been going."
Asked about the prospect of an early referendum, Mr Lidington said: "David Cameron has said the deadline is 2017 but if we can do it earlier we would welcome that."
The government is expected to include an EU referendum bill in the upcoming Queen's Speech. Mr Cameron wants reforms from Brussels to ensure that EU migrants are not able to travel to the UK in order to claim benefits.
Mr Lidington said: "I know the people involved and the issues pretty thoroughly but the pace has stepped up. I have seen the first draft of the referendum bill and I will be having another meeting about that later this morning." He said that he was "optimistic" that Britain would be able to push for tough reforms because "confidence" in the EU was so low throughout Europe.
"If you look at opinion polls you will find levels of confidence [in Europe] are actually lower in France and Spain than in the UK," he added. "It would be wrong to think the disconnect is just a matter of concern to the British. That's why I'm optimistic we've got a chance at successful reforms."
Tomorrow an international summit will give Mr Cameron his first post-election opportunity to kick off discussions with European counterparts on changes he wants to see to Britain's relationship with the EU, Downing Street has said.
The meeting comes just days after France set its face against the changes to the EU's treaties which Mr Cameron believes are necessary to address British people's concerns over uncontrolled immigration.
Mr Cameron announced in 2013 that he would seek renegotiation of the UK's EU membership if the Tories won this year's general election, before holding a referendum on whether Britain should stay or leave by the end of 2017.
The Conservative majority secured on May 7 has cleared the way for talks to start in earnest, and Britain's demands are now set to be discussed when high-level representatives of the 28 member-states meet in Latvian capital Riga tomorrow for the two-yearly summit of the EU's Eastern Partnership.
The formal agenda of the meeting is dominated by relations with former Soviet nations on the EU's eastern borders, but Mr Cameron will use discussions in the margins of the conference to press the UK's case for change.
In a speech in November, Mr Cameron set out some of the changes to EU freedom of movement rules which he wants introduced across the Union, but will introduce in Britain alone if he cannot secure the support of other countries.
The Eastern Partnership summit is held every couple of years, and brings together senior representatives of the 28 EU member states and six "partner countries" - Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine.
The gathering takes place under the shadow of continuing tension between Ukraine and Russia. Downing Street said the UK had been consistent in taking a "leading role" in making sure the six partner countries receive "steadfast support" in their efforts. (© Daily Telegraph, London)