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28th Jan 2023

Cameron faces tricky EU vote on Monday

British Prime Minister David Cameron has so far managed to keep his party’s tortured relationship with the EU in the background but a motion for an EU referendum looks set to change this.

On Monday (24 October), the House of Commons will hear a motion to hold a three-way referendum on Britain's relationship with the EU by May 2013.

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  • Cameron: My way or the high way - MPs are set to lose their posts unless they vote No (Photo: El_Enigma)

Put forward by Conservative MP David Nuttall, it suggests that Britons should be asked whether their country should stay in the EU, leave it, or renegotiate its membership.

"It’s 36 years since we last had a referendum on the European union and it wasn’t the European Union in those days. It was the European Economic Community. Since then it has changed out of all recognition in terms of its size its scope and it powers," Nutall told this website.

His move has caused major ripples in the Conservative Party and beyond, and directly challenges Cameron's attempt to deflate the ultra eurosceptic wing of his party by vowing not to allow any more power to be handed over to Brussels and to "repatriate" powers sometime in the future.

Originally scheduled for Thursday, the debate on the motion has been brought forward to Monday to give Cameron a chance to address his backbenchers directly, before heading away on a foreign trip.

In a sign of the nervousness in the cabinet, the BBC reports that Conservative MPs may face a three-line whip, meaning they would have to follow the party line or resign from their posts.

This appears to have stoked rebellion further. "Some things are more important than party preferment," said Conservative MP Stewart Jackson, who indicated he will vote in favour of the motion even it means he will lose his job as a parliamentary private secretary.

The motion is non-binding on the government. But even if it is not carried, as is likely, Cameron may find it difficult to continue with his policy of steering his party away from talking about the EU.

Andrew Duff, a UK Liberal MEP, says the motion shows the EU is back "big time" for the Conservatives.

"It is a sign that the Tory party is more aggressively eurosceptic than before and a lot more organised than it has been in the past," he says.

Duff also believes it is an indication that anti-EU sentiment has moved from being "fairly marginal" to the more "mainstream" part of the party.

The motion comes on the back of a petition with a 100,000 signatories handed into Downing Street last month.

EU relations have moved up the Tory political agenda in Britain partly as a result of a feeling of vindication that the country never joined the single currency, but also anger that it still has to contribute to bailing out the eurozone's troubled members through its participation in the IMF.

Meanwhile, other aspects of its relations with Brussels have long riled the Conservative rank and file. Most contentious are EU social and employment laws, regularly held up as an example of unnecessary interference from "Brussels".

"In many ways the EU touches invisibly on all sorts of aspects of life now. It is this that I think is causing the euroscepticism to grow," says Nuttall, although he admits people "don't raise the EU very often" on the doorstep.

Cameron has in the past tried to draw a line under the debate by authorising Conservative MEPs to leave the federalist European People's Party group to form their own eurosceptic group in the European Parliament. A just-published draft EU bill, drawn up by his government, contains a sovereignty clause that would make it obligatory to hold a referendum on all future EU treaty changes.

The prime minister has also recently argued that he does not want Britain to leave the EU and that now is not the time - mid euro-crisis - to renegotiate the terms of the country's membership.

But the question may be on the table sooner rather than later despite his efforts, as Germany and others make a strong case for re-opening the treaty to tighten up economic governance rules.

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