Lawmakers on Tuesday backed British Prime Minister David Cameron’s plan for a referendum on the nation’s EU membership, but a heated debate highlighted passions that could split his Conservative Party and reopen Scotland’s bid for independence.
Cameron, seeking to put an end to a decades-old rift within his party over Britain’s place in Europe, has promised to negotiate a new settlement with Brussels and hold a referendum by the end of 2017.
Voters are set to be asked: “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union?” — a choice of wording which allows the “in” campaign to brand itself as “Yes.”
Lawmakers overwhelmingly voted to pass the EU Referendum Bill, which sets out the rules for the plebiscite, at Tuesday’s second reading in parliament, with 544 votes in favor to 53 against. It has the support of the opposition Labour Party, but in the debate, the government was assailed from all sides.
Cameron, who did not attend Tuesday’s debate, says he wants Britain to remain in a reformed EU and is confident he can get changes that would allow him to recommend that to Britons. However, he has ruled nothing out if he does not secure reforms such as tighter restrictions on EU migrants’ access to welfare payments.
The issue of Europe is notorious for wreaking havoc within Cameron’s Conservatives, having contributed to the downfall of his predecessors Margaret Thatcher and John Major.
Conservative skeptics have so far been careful to say they support Cameron’s negotiations with Brussels. However, several made clear on Tuesday that they fear a pro-EU government stitch-up and were looking closely at the rules.
“Any attempt now to rig this vote now will simply amplify the distrust the voters already have,” said Eurosceptic Conservative lawmaker Bill Cash, who led a rebellion against Major over the EU’s Maastricht Treaty in the early 1990s.
Cameron tripped up over Europe on the eve of the debate by appearing to issue an ultimatum to his Cabinet ministers to back his position, which angered some Conservative heavyweights. He later said he meant they must back his negotiations with Europe, but had not yet determined whether he would insist they take a particular line in the referendum itself.
Policy on Europe not only threatens the unity of Cameron’s Conservatives, but of the UK itself. The EU is more popular in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland than it is in England, which accounts for 85 percent of the UK population.
Scottish nationalists say they could demand a rerun of last year’s failed independence vote if England votes to leave the EU, but Scotland votes to stay. They called for the rules of the referendum to be changed so that each of the UK’s constituent nations must back a withdrawal for it to go ahead.
“It would be outrageous, disgraceful, undemocratic and unacceptable to drag Scotland out of the European Union against the wishes and will of the Scottish people,” former Scottish nationalist leader Alex Salmond told parliament.
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