British PM's party unveils EU referendum question

14th May 2013, Comments 0 comments

Prime Minister David Cameron tried to quell a rebellious mood in his Conservative party on Tuesday by publishing a draft bill revealing the wording of a referendum on Britain's EU membership.

Cameron denied that he had been panicked into rushing through the proposed legislation, which would legally enshrine his commitment to hold a vote on Britain's place in the bloc by December 31, 2017.

But the sudden publication came just one day before dozens of rebel Conservative lawmakers were expected to vote for a separate parliamentary motion condemning the coalition government's European policy.

"Do you think that the United Kingdom should remain a member of the European Union?" is the wording of the question that would appear on ballot papers, according to the bill.

Cameron faces growing turmoil in the Conservative party over Europe, a toxic issue which ended the career of legendary late prime minister Margaret Thatcher as far back as 1990.

It is highly unusual because it has been published by the party alone, instead of the coalition government with the Liberal Democrats, so will rely on an individual Tory MP guiding it through parliament as a private members' bill.

Cameron has previously promised to renegotiate Britain's troubled relationship with the European Union, and to then enact legislation for a referendum if he wins a general election in 2015.

But many eurosceptic Conservative lawmakers want greater commitment from him before the election, fearing in particular the recent rise of the anti-EU and anti-immigration UK Independence Party.

Foreign Secretary William Hague acknowledged the draft bill had almost no chance of becoming law, but said it meant there could be "debate in the House of Commons on our policy, it means there can be a vote in the House of Commons."

Speaking in the United States, where the row has followed him as he makes a three-day visit, Cameron rejected suggestions that he had been pushed into publishing the bill.

"Not at all. If this was a Conservative-only government, we would just get on and legislate. We can't do that because we are in coalition," he told Britain's Channel 5 news.

"But I have always said that anything we can do to strengthen, add credibility to the pledge... we should do."

He added meanwhile in an interview with the BBC that he was "profoundly relaxed" about the parliamentary motion on Wednesday.

The motion condemns the lack of any mention of Europe in last week's Queen's Speech, which sets out government policy for the coming year.

Cameron said he had ordered ministers to either abstain or vote against the motion but all other MPs could vote as they want.

The growing uncertainty about Britain's position in the EU has prompted concern in recent months from European partners, investors and US officials.

But US President Barack Obama on Monday publicly backed Cameron's plans to renegotiate Britain's EU membership.

"David's basic point -- that you probably want to see if you can fix what's broken in a very important relationship before you break it off -- makes some sense to me," Obama said.

In Britain however calls to quit the EU have been getting louder, and two Conservative ministers said this weekend they would vote to exit the bloc if a referendum were held now.

At least 67 Tory MPs have said they will support Wednesday's parliamentary motion.

The chief rebel, John Baron, said the draft bill was "not good enough" and would not affect the vote.

The opposition Labour party accused Cameron of losing control.

"This seems to be just the latest panicked response from the prime minister who is now following, rather than leading his backbenchers," said senior Labour figure Douglas Alexander.

Labour opposes legislating now for a referendum in four years' time, although it too is divided over Europe.

A new Guardian/ICM poll found 35 percent of Britons favoured an immediate referendum, while 43 percent said they would vote to leave the EU and 40 percent said they wanted to stay in.

UKIP leader Nigel Farage, whose party secured one quarter of the vote in recent local elections, said Cameron's bill was "an act of sheer desperation".

© 2013 AFP

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