Cameron could hold British EU membership vote in 2016

11th May 2015, Comments 0 comments

David Cameron could bring forward a referendum on Britain's EU membership to next year instead of 2017 to cut short an impending battle on two fronts -- in Brussels and against Eurosceptics in his own camp.

"It is highly likely they want to have a short re-negotiation that would be ended by the end of 2015 and they want to have a referendum in 2016," John Springford, an expert at the Centre for European Reform in London, told AFP.

Iain Begg, from the European Institute at the London School of Economics university, sounded more cautious.

The prime minister may want to use his "political capital" following his re-election on May 7.

Begg said it was "quite possible that (European Commission President Jean-Claude) Juncker will move quickly for once".

The idea of moving the timetable forward was sourced in British newspapers to different officials and the reports said that City investors in favour of the project were also keen to eliminate uncertainty.

The prime minister began his offensive on Monday by meeting an influential committee of Conservative backbenchers, who are notoriously vocal on Europe.

The trouble for Cameron is that Europe has been a toxic issue for the Conservatives for years.

It was a major source of the discord under former prime minister John Major in the 1990s, and it put the Conservatives in opposition for 13 years.

"Cameron is condemned to a dual negotiation with his European partners and his own party about how large a reform programme he is able to achieve," Springford said.

He said that the 331 Conservative lawmakers in the new parliament divide into three groups over Europe.

"One third is in favour, but they are pretty quiet, one third want to stay in but want big reforms, one third want to leave," he said.

Cameron was applauded by the backbenchers on Monday but the political honeymoon may be short-lived.

"He'll have to be pretty clear on the four to five to six reforms he wants on specific areas and they will have to bite the bullet," Springford added.

- 'It's about sovereignty' -

Anything that warrants European treaty change, such as a renegotiation of freedom of movement, a core principle of the European Union, is taboo.

And it will be difficult for Cameron to win over European partners on proposals like a four-year block on welfare payments for EU migrants.

In his first government starting in 2010, Cameron often appeared to give in to pressure from Eurosceptics and the anti-EU UK Independence Party, while trying to keep on side his junior partners in the coalition, the Europhile Liberal Democrats.

Since being re-elected he has given a big boost to Eurosceptics by naming Michael Gove as the new justice minister -- in charge of scrapping the European Convention on Human Rights.

The Eurosceptics have said they want dialogue but have multiplied their warnings in recent days.

One potential rebel, John Baron, told the BBC on Monday that there should be a "calm" conversation but Britain should have its "eyes wide open" in negotiations.

"It's about sovereignty in parliament. It's about the fact that laws governing the people of this country should be set by the people of this country," he said.

This resistance to Europe is as old as Britain's membership of the European Economic Community, the precursor of the EU, dating back to 1973.

And the signs are that the public may not agree.

Even though the blue EU flags are few and far between and press rants all too common, opinion polls show that a majority would be in favour of membership.

"In a referendum, it is the voters who vote, not the Conservative Party," Begg said.

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© 2015 AFP

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