British PM faces EU referendum vote rebellion

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David Cameron was facing the biggest rebellion of his premiership Monday as eurosceptic backbenchers in his Conservative Party vowed to defy orders and vote for a referendum on Britain's EU membership.

The vote in parliament's lower House of Commons is symbolic, but is still politically significant with more than 80 Conservative lawmakers tipped to ignore Cameron's direct orders for them to vote against the motion.

Defeat for the government is highly unlikely, because the Liberal Democrats -- the Conservatives' euro-friendly junior coalition partners -- and the main opposition Labour Party are both expected to vote with the government.

The vote comes after a stormy European Union summit on the eurozone debt crisis at the weekend in which Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy were reportedly involved in a heated exchange on Britain's stance.

Cameron has imposed a three-line whip on the vote, which usually results in dismissal for any government member who votes against, and disobedience presents a large obstacle in the career path of any rebel backbench lawmakers.

Foreign Secretary William Hague, who is strongly eurosceptic, insisted a referendum on being in or out of the 27-member EU was "the wrong question at the wrong time", warning it would undermine the already fragile economy.

He said the Conservatives wanted powers repatriated from Brussels but the government was bound by the coalition agreement between the Tories and the Lib Dems.

"I've argued for more referendums than almost anybody else, I've argued against the euro more comprehensively than almost anybody else," Hague told BBC radio.

"But this proposition is the wrong question at the wrong time.

"It wasn't in the manifesto of either of the governing parties. It cuts right across the rules for holding referendums that we have just agreed by large majorities.

"It would create additional economic uncertainty in this country at a difficult economic time.

"Europe is undergoing a process of change and in an in-out referendum people would want to know where the change was going to finish up before they voted."

A parliamentary committee ordered the parliamentary vote after more than 100,000 Britons signed a petition asking for a choice on the kingdom's EU membership.

At the summit in Brussels on Sunday, Cameron threatened to "exact a price" if the 17 countries who use the euro sought closer integration to deal with the crisis.

Cameron said that if EU leaders made any changes to treaties, it would be an opportunity for Britain to advance its national interest.

"I don't think this is the right time to legislate for an in-out referendum," he said.

"I think this is the right time to sort out Europe's problems, sort out the eurozone problem, defend your national interest and look to the opportunities in the future to repatriate powers back to Britain."

A row on Britain's position reportedly resulted in Sarkozy telling Cameron he was "sick of him telling us what to do", according to British newspapers.

The issue of Europe has long been a pressure point for the Conservatives.

The biggest Conservative rebellion to date over Europe was in 1993, when 41 Tories voted against the Maastricht Treaty, an episode which proved costly to John Major's authority as prime minister.

Conservative backbencher Bernard Jenkin, among those set to vote against the government, told BBC TV: "This is basically about democracy. The British people have long wanted a referendum on the European Union.

"We haven't had one since 1975. We tried to get a referendum on Maastricht. We wouldn't be in this mess in Europe now if there had been a referendum then.

He added: "David Cameron is not just taking on the Conservative Party, he's taking on the whole of public opinion. The vast majority think it's time we had a say on our membership."

© 2011 AFP

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