Cameron in the face of rebellion over EU referendum

By Nisha Thanki

Once again Euroscepticism has come to the forefront of British politics and threatened to divide the Conservative party as Prime Minister David Cameron faced a rebellion by his Conservative MPs over proposals for a referendum on Europe.

On Sunday the Prime Minister was in Brussels for an EU summit to discuss the Euro crisis, where he was faced with heavy criticism from Sarkozy, who accused him of interfering and criticising the Euro Zone. Just yesterday Cameron was trying to exercise authority and make his voice heard in Brussels; today he may well experience revolt in the House of Commons. On Monday Cameron addressed MPs in a last minute attempt to dissuade them from voting in favour of a referendum on Europe.

All Conservative, Lib Dem and Labour MPs had been told to vote against a motion for a referendum over the UK’s place in the EU. Cameron had even issued a three line whip on the matter, which meaning that MPs that vote in favour of the referendum are expected to resign from the party.

Yet 81 Conservative MPs defied the Prime Minister’s orders and voted in favour of the referendum. The Commons debate on EU membership that took place on Monday, followed a Number 10 e-Petition, which was signed by 10, 000 members of the public and a request by Conservative MP David Nuttall. The motion called for a referendum by May 2013, proposing three options: keep the status quo, leave the EU or reform the UK’s existing membership to the EU.

It is remarkable to consider how much furore this motion for a referendum has caused, with David Cameron having gone to the extent of issuing the three line whip. On the international scene, considering the large number of MPs that revolted, it will no doubt be embarrassing for Britain. It seems as though the Conservative party is likely to repeat history with internal conflict over the question of the EU.

The reaction to the referendum proposal has been strong from Cameron, who insisted that the current focus should be on economic recovery and reiterated that when there is a treaty change, the UK will hold a referendum on the EU. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg also claimed that the focus needed to remain on stabilising the Euro Zone.

Rather than splitting the coalition, it seems as though the role of Britain in the EU may be controversial solely within the Conservative party. William Hague the foreign secretary said on Monday: ‘clearly our whole relationship with the European Union is a matter that concerns the government as a whole and not just something for the House of Commons to put some graffiti about. (It is) the wrong question at the wrong time’. Whether these arguments reflect the broader opinion of the Conservative party remains to be seen. However, it has become clear that the Conservative does not hold a united Eurosceptic view.

The EU has often played a contentious role in British politics, but David Cameron is facing perhaps the biggest rebellion over Europe yet. For many, David Cameron has reneged on the Eurosceptic stance he had whilst in opposition, as for example his promise to hold a referendum on the Lisbon treaty. Could the issue of Europe lead to internal disruption in the Conservative party yet again?

According to Labour leader Ed Miliband, Cameron ‘has appeased the Eurosceptics in his party and he has brought tomorrow’s events on himself’, by capitalising on Eurosceptic sentiment in the run up to the general election. Miliband argues that Cameron and Osborne should be doing more in the EU to make sure that jobs and growth are sustained for Britain rather than focusing on ‘party needs’, and went further to claim that the ‘conservative party looks out of touch turning inward and squabbling among themselves. This is not what our country needs.’

This debacle has made it clear that there needs to be a coherent Conservative policy towards Europe, one which is not simply imposed. Britain needs the EU to solve the Euro crisis and ensure stability across Europe, therefore Britain needs a strong voice and authority in the EU.

At a time when the EU is going through internal turmoil, the last thing it needs is for internal politics in Member States to become unclear. Should parties and coalitions disunite on their stance towards the European Union, it will not help them reach a conclusion any faster on what should be done to solve the Euro crisis. Not only that, but it will not help restore people’s confidence in the EU, something it desperately needs.

Furthermore, David Cameron would do well to remember that in order to stand a chance of being re-elected, most politicians within European Member States will be expected to be seen doing something to solve the Euro crisis. As he has rightly understood, a referendum on the UK’s membership to the EU would hold severe consequences for pulling Europe out of its current situation. This in turn could greatly harm the Conservative party if it were to be seen as having made matters worse.

The motion for a referendum has become somewhat of a farce. For members of the EU it shows once again that the Conservatives are not committed to the European project, and may harm their ability to negotiate. On the other hand it makes one question the strength of democracy, when MPs are unable to vote as they will for a motion that originated through a public petition.

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