British Prime Minister David Cameron yesterday embarked on a daunting challenge to persuade ministers in his own Cabinet and the country at large to vote for Britain to stay in the EU.
Cameron held a Cabinet meeting — the first on a Saturday since the Falklands War in 1982 — after striking a deal in Brussels that gives Britain special concessions.
Following the meeting, Cameron called for his referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU to take place on 23 June, after the cabinet formally agreed to campaign to stay in despite several minister openly supporting Brexit.
Speaking from outside Downing Street, the prime minister said he had secured a good deal with Brussels to give the UK a special status and leaving the EU would “threaten our economic and national security”.
The majority of the cabinet agreed to back the deal agreed in Brussels by Cameron with 27 other EU leaders reforming Britain’s relationship with the rest of the bloc. But within minutes of his announcement, some ministers began to declare they would fight for the UK to leave the EU.
Six cabinet ministers — among them Lord Chancellor Michael Gove and Secretary of State for Work and Pensions Iain Duncan Smith — gathered for a photograph at the headquarters of Vote Leave, signalling their intention to back the main Brexit campaign.
Cameron confirmed they would all be able to campaign freely and said there would be many passionate arguments over the months ahead, but the ultimate decision would lie with Britons.
Cameron said the EU deal contained a seven-year “emergency brake” on welfare payments for EU migrants and meant Britain would be “permanently out of ever closer union” — one of the EU’s key objectives.
However, Britain’s predominantly right-wing newspapers reacted skeptically.
“Cameron’s Climbdown,” read a headline on the Daily Express Web site, while the Daily Mail said: “Call that a Deal, Dave?”
The Daily Telegraph said Cameron had made “puny gains” and the Times called it “Thin Gruel.”
“From the land of chocolate, David Cameron was always destined to bring back fudge,” said the Times, which dismissed Cameron’s drawn-out negotiations with fellow European leaders as “ill-disguised theatrics.”
He “has little choice now but to resort to the old argument that Britain’s interests are best served by trying to reform Europe from the inside, rather than submitting to the unknown rigors of full independence” an editorial said. “He faces an uphill struggle making it.”
However, the left-leaning Guardian said the deal was “a practical package” and “cannot be dismissed as a charade.”
This will be Britain’s second referendum on European membership in just over 30 years.
In June 1975, voters backed membership of the then European Economic Community (EEC) by just over 67 percent.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Europe’s most powerful leader, said the accord in Brussels was a “fair compromise.”
“I do not think that we gave too much to Great Britain,” she said.
French President Francois Hollande insisted the deal contained “no exceptions to the rules” of the EU, but Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi said: “There is a risk of us losing sight of the original European dream.”
During negotiations, France and Belgium strongly resisted safeguards for countries that do not use the euro.
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said the deal would give Britain no power of veto over the eurozone.
Additional reporting from the Guardian
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