British Prime Minister David Cameron has been challenged by a group of over 50 lawmakers from his Conservative Party who are prepared to join a campaign backing Britain’s exit from the European Union unless he achieves radical changes in the bloc.
The lawmakers on Sunday launched a new political group called Conservatives for Britain (CfB), which will support Cameron’s bid for reform while urging an end to EU membership unless significant changes are achieved.
Cameron is attempting to persuade European leaders to back UK demands for reform before holding an in-out referendum on Britain’s EU membership. He has promised the vote by the end of 2017.
“We wish David Cameron every success, but unless senior EU officials awake to the possibility that one of the EU’s largest members is serious about a fundamental change in our relationship, our recommendation to British voters seems likely to be exit,” Conservative lawmaker Steve Baker said.
Baker said CfB had already signed more than 50 lawmakers (MPs) and expected numbers to soon rise to about 100, including some ministers. Up to nine of Cameron’s ministers could vote to leave the EU, according to one CfB member, a number that could not be independently confirmed.
It was the first sign of Eurosceptic revolt since Cameron was re-elected last month.
Some Eurosceptic Conservative lawmakers feel Cameron has framed the referendum question in a way that favours a vote to stay in the EU and are also angry he has decided not to impose restrictions on government campaign activity in the run-up to the vote.
Some have even suggested they feel so strongly about the subject that they may try to amend a law going through parliament to enable the referendum to take place.
“I have been struck by the dozens of Tory (Conservative) MPs who would vote to quit the EU now and who will not settle for anything less than fundamental change,” Baker, who is chairing the CfB group in parliament, wrote in the Sunday Telegraph.
The group said it would set out details of exactly what changes it wanted at a later date, but highlighted freedom-of-movement rules and repatriating control over lawmaking powers from Brussels as likely priorities.
Baker said some members in the group wanted Cameron to win the power to veto EU laws – something Hammond ruled out, saying it would “effectively be the end of the European Union”.
Speaking on the sidelines of a meeting in Germany of the Group of Seven Industrial nations (G7), Cameron warned ministers they will have to back his EU strategy or leave his government.
“If you want to be part of the government, you have to take the view that we are engaged in an exercise of renegotiation to have a referendum, and that will lead to a successful outcome,” he told reporters, when asked whether he would allow ministers to vote in the referendum according to their conscience.
“Everyone in government has signed up to the programme set out in the Conservative manifesto.”
Cameron says he is confident he can get a deal that will allow him to recommend Britons vote to stay in the 28-nation bloc, a club they have belonged to since 1973.
His position is vulnerable however. Re-elected with a surprise majority, Cameron commands a mere 12-seat majority in the 650-seat House of Commons. A fully-fledged rebellion over Europe among his own lawmakers could derail his wider lawmaking agenda and cast a cloud over his second term in office.
“There was always going to be a group of our colleagues who wanted to come out of the European Union come what may,” said Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond in a Sunday interview with the BBC.
Seeking treaty change
One of the biggest hurdles to Cameron’s renegotiation is the subject of treaty change, something which Britain says it needs, but which other European leaders are reluctant to consider.
“We think some of the changes in particular that we’re demanding around availability of welfare benefits for new migrants from the EU can only be sustained against judicial attack in the European Courts by treaty change,” Hammond said.
“It’s not treaty change for its own sake, it’s treaty change in order to protect the real material changes that we need to get.”
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who will play a leading role in negotiations with Britain, appeared not to rule out treaty change in an interview with the BBC last week.
“If that is really necessary, then we have to think about it,” she said. “It’s not about losing sleep over this, but about doing our work and creating the necessary preconditions for Britain to remain in the EU.”
Poll: 59% of Britons would vote ‘Yes’
A survey by polling firm ICM indicated that 59% of Britons supported staying in the EU, and 41 wanted to leave, the Telegraph said.
In an interview with The Observer, Rafal Trzaskowski, Poland’s Minister for European Affairs, said European leaders wanted Britain to stay in the EU, but not at any cost.
“Many people in Europe want to be accommodating,” he said, ” … but if the demands are too extreme, they are not going to be met.”
David Cameron's ruling Conservative party won an outright majority in the 2015 parliamentary election, allowing them to govern alone.
Cameron has promised to renegotiate the country's relationship with the EU and then call a referendum by 2017 on whether to stay or leave, a decision with far-reaching implications for trade, investment and Britain's place in the world.
The Tory government may use the momentum from its win to bring the vote forward to 2016, avoiding clashes with French and German national elections due in Spring 2017.
The British premier has previously said he would be “delighted” if renegotiation of the terms of UK membership could be agreed quickly and the vote brought forward.
>> Read our LinksDossier: The UK's EU referendum: On the path to Brexit?