British PM seeks to head off rebellion over EU vote

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Prime Minister David Cameron sought to head off a major rebellion within his party over Europe on Monday, urging lawmakers not to act "rashly and prematurely" and to reject a referendum on Britain's membership.

Cameron said he sympathised with eurosceptics in his Conservative Party who wanted a new relationship with Brussels, but said now was not the time when all efforts should be focused on resolving the eurozone debt crisis.

"Our national interest is to be in the EU," he told the House of Commons.

Between 60 and 100 of the party's 305 members of parliament are expected to defy the Tory leader's orders and back a motion calling for a referendum on membership, in the first serious challenge to Cameron's 18-month premiership.

Defeat for the government in the vote Monday is 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.

But the rebellion is politically significant, particularly as polls suggest it has public support. A YouGov survey for the Sunday Times this weekend found 66 percent of Britons back a referendum on European Union membership.

At the start of what was expected to be a lengthy debate, Cameron said he understood MPs' "frustration" over Europe and shared their "yearning for fundamental reform, and I am determined to deliver it".

But he said Britain should focus on helping resolve the eurozone crisis, which itself would provide its own opportunities for reform, as it raised questions about the nature of the single currency and EU institutions.

Europe is Britain's biggest export market, Cameron added, and any suggestion that it might pull out "could cause great uncertainty and could actually damage our prospects of growth".

"It would not be in our national interest to act rashly and prematurely, achieve nothing and blow this chance to negotiate a better deal for our country," he said.

The referendum proposed would ask the British public if they want to remain in the EU, leave or renegotiate membership, in the first such vote since 1975.

Cameron has imposed a three-line whip on Monday's vote, indicating Tory MPs must back the party leadership or face disciplinary action, which could see them lose their jobs in government or see their political careers stall.

But many eurosceptics are expected to rebel, saying the crisis in the eurozone means now is exactly the time for Britain to renegotiate its EU ties.

Tory MP Philip Davies told the debate that Britain's future lay with emerging countries such as China, India, South America, "not being part of a backward-facing, inward-facing protection racket which is what the European Union is, propping up inefficient businesses and French farmers."

Cameron has insisted he is defending Britain's interests in Europe, and at an EU summit on Sunday, he threatened to "exact a price" if the 17 countries who use the euro sought closer integration to deal with the crisis.

His stance sparked a row with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who said he was "sick of you (Cameron) criticising us and telling us what to do" in the eurozone.

Labour leader Ed Miliband seized on this during Monday's debate, saying the row at home was preventing Cameron from fighting Britain's corner in Brussels.

"Apparently President Sarkozy, until recently his new best friend, had had enough of the posturing, the hectoring, the know-it-all ways. Mr President, let me say, yesterday, you spoke not just for France but for Britain as well," he said.

Miliband added: "We see a rerun of the old movie -- an out of touch Tory party tearing itself apart over Europe.

"And all the time the British people are left to worry about their jobs and livelihoods. The prime minister should stop negotiating with his backbenchers and start fighting for the national interest."

© 2011 AFP

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