By Robin Emmott
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - European lawmakers allied with German Chancellor Angela Merkel say they will not accept David Cameron's renegotiation of EU membership at any price, warning on Thursday that Britain has more to lose by leaving.
On the day Cameron told impatient fellow leaders in Brussels that he would end their wait and deliver detailed demands early next month, it was a reminder of tough talking ahead that Cameron's says will be "bloody hard work".
The European People's Party, the largest political group in the EU legislature and broadly made up of center-right Christian Democrats, appears to be taking a firm line with London.
"We want Britain to remain in the European Union, but we cannot accept it at any price. That's very clear," EPP leader Joseph Daul told Reuters, signaling that the group is ready to contemplate an EU without Britain.
"We can still be friends," said Daul, who is French, when asked about EU ties if British people were to vote to leave the bloc in a referendum planned for before the end of 2017.
Following a first meeting this month of around 30 EPP lawmakers to discuss the "Brexit" risk the position appears to reject some of London's ideas, for instance removing references to the euro as the EU's common currency.
Cameron pulled his Conservatives out of the EPP in 2009 to set up their own group in the European Parliament that opposes the Christian Democrats' push for closer EU integration.
Other influential EPP members include European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, whose executive will have to work out legal details of any deal, former French president Nicolas Sarkozy and European Council President Donald Tusk, who chairs summits and will try to forge consensus among all 28 EU leaders.
Other areas that the EPP views as difficult include Cameron's wish to require EU nationals working in Britain to wait longer before they can claim benefits such as child support. That breaks EU rules on discrimination against fellow Europeans, EPP officials say.
The EPP is also wary of Cameron's push for a commitment that the goal of 'ever closer union' in the EU treaty's preamble should not apply to Britain. "Ever closer union is between peoples, not countries. We should not be apologetic about this," said one EPP official involved in the discussions.
"We welcome Cameron saying he is ready for bridge building," said another. "But we should say, OK, if your bridge is too wide that we have to build, then, sorry, we can do without you."
However, the EPP is more sympathetic to Cameron's calls to cut back on EU regulation that his government says stifles innovation and strangles small companies.
(Additional reporting by Alastair Macdonald; Editing by Alastair Macdonald)