Britain will vote on its membership of the European Union on June 23, prime minister David Cameron said yesterday as he began the daunting challenge of persuading the country to stay in.
He announced the date for the referendum after a two-hour cabinet meeting where he outlined the deal he struck in Brussels on Friday that he said will give Britain “special status” in the EU.
“We are approaching one of the biggest decisions this country will face in our lifetimes,” he said, addressing the nation outside his 10 Downing Street residence.
“The choice goes to the kind of country we want to be,” he said, warning that proponents of leaving were offering “a risk at a time of uncertainty, a leap in the dark”.
Britain would be “safer, stronger and better off” in the bloc, he said, calling the concessions negotiated with other EU leaders “the best of both worlds”.
The campaign will be bitterly contested in a country with a long tradition of euroscepticism and a hostile right-wing press, with opinion polls showing Britons are almost evenly divided.
Cameron’s Conservative party has long been split over Europe and the premier held an emergency cabinet meeting yesterday to try to persuade ministers to his cause.
But no sooner had the talks ended than five of the cabinet’s 22 ministers announced they would be campaigning to leave, including justice minister Michael Gove.
The position of the popular Conservative mayor of London Boris Johnson, which could sway many voters, remained unclear.
The deal secured after two days of negotiations in Brussels was only the start of a long battle for Cameron as he seeks to stop Britain becoming the first country to leave the EU. Cameron has said he will campaign “with all my heart and soul” for a vote to stay.
Many British newspapers reacted sceptically to the Brussels deal, which contained restrictions on welfare payments for EU migrants and an opt-out for Britain from the EU’s goal towards ever closer union.
“Cameron’s Climbdown,” read a headline on the Daily Express website, 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”.
Nigel Farage, whose UK Independence Party (Ukip) helped create the pressure that forced Cameron into calling the referendum three years ago, also said the deal was “pathetic”.
He welcomed the date for the referendum as a “golden opportunity”, saying: “Let battle be joined. We want our country back.”
The campaigns for and against staying in the EU are already mobilised, and analysts say they will focus less on the nitty gritty of Brussels deal and more on wider issues of security, sovereignty, immigration and jobs.
Opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn called the deal a “sideshow” but said he would campaign to stay in the EU because the bloc “brings investment, jobs and protection for British workers and consumer”.
“The package will persuade few voters of the merits of the EU,” John Springford, senior research fellow at the Centre for European Reform, said in a commentary.
“Cameron’s best chance of success is to shift the debate from his reforms to the more lofty terrain, away from arguments about banking safeguards and migrants’ benefits towards a contest over how to secure Britain’s interests in Europe and the rest of the world.”
Anand Menon, professor of European politics at King’s College London, said he expected both sides to emphasise the risks of either leaving or sticking with the status quo.
“This is going to be a depressingly negative campaign,” he told AFP.
Cameron will tomorrow address parliament, which has to approve the date for Britain’s second referendum on European membership in just over 40 years.
In June 1975, voters backed membership of the then European Economic Community (EEC) by just over 67%.
Media tycoon Rupert Murdoch congratulated a close ally of prime minister David Cameron yesterday for wanting to campaign to leave the European Union in an upcoming referendum.
“Congratulations Michael Gove,” Murdoch said on Twitter. “Friends always knew his principles would overcome his personal friendships.”
The message from the 84-year-old executive chairman of News Corp and 21st Century Fox Inc raises the possibility that some of the media tycoon’s British newspapers could campaign for an EU exit.
Previous editors of Murdoch’s Sun tabloid, the country’s biggest selling newspaper, have said they sometimes reflected Murdoch’s opinions in the paper on major issues such as which political party to back at elections.
Murdoch had previously used the social media network to call Cameron’s renegotiation with the EU a “non-deal”, adding “Now he’s rumoured to be begging cabinet colleagues to put aside beliefs”.
Murdoch’s News Corp newspapers include the Wall Street Journal, the New York Post and the Sun and the Times in Britain.
If England votes to leave the European Union against the wishes of Scotland then pressure would swiftly rise for a second independence referendum, the former nationalist leader of Scotland said yesterday.
Nicola Sturgeon, the current leader of the Scottish National Party and of Scotland’s devolved government, has said she supports staying in the EU, and polls show that a majority of the 5mn Scots would also back that view.
However, the Scottish vote is dwarfed by that of England which has 53mn and represents about 84% of the population of the United Kingdom.
“I think the referendum across the UK is on a knife-edge, it will depend entirely on how it’s argued. I don’t rate the deal that Cameron has done in Brussels, I think it’s about marginal issues,” former SNP leader Alex Salmond told the BBC.
If “we were dragged out against our will by the votes of a much larger English (electorate), then the pressure for another independence referendum in Scotland would be irresistible and I think very rapid,” he said.
Scots rejected independence by 55-45% in a vote in 2014 but since then the SNP has gained further strength, taking 56 of the 59 seats representing Scotland in the national parliament in London in last May’s election.
The campaign for Britain to leave or stay part of the European Union is already in full swing ahead of a membership referendum planned for June 23.
Here are some of the key players in the debate:
The “Remain” camp:
- Prime Minister David Cameron will lead the campaign for Britain to stay in the European Union. Most MPs from his Conservative party will fall into line, although a group of eurosceptics will vote against.
- Jeremy Corbyn: The main opposition Labour party has said it will campaign to stay, although a few eurosceptics there too will decide to vote against.
Corbyn has branded Cameron’s EU deal a “sideshow” but has said he will campaign to stay because of investments, jobs and worker protection from the EU.
- Campaign: “Britain Stronger in Europe” is the main group advocating British membership. It is led by Stuart Rose, a former chairman of the retailer Marks & Spencer and a Conservative member of the House of Lords, but has kept a low profile so far.
- Business: Key business leaders including Richard Branson have spoken out for EU membership, with the Virgin founder warning a departure would be a “very sad day”. Barclays bank chairman John McFarlane has warned the City of London, Europe’s premier financial hub, would be “significantly” worse off without the EU.
- Celebrities: Several cultural figures have come out as pro-EU. The latest, award-winning British actress and campaigner Emma Thompson, said leaving Europe would be “a crazy idea”. “Of course I’m going to vote to stay in Europe. Oh my God, it would be madness not to,” she told reporters at the Berlin Film Festival.
- Royals: Prince William never actually mentioned the word Europe but in a speech at the foreign ministry in London this month, the second in line to the throne made some comments that were widely interpreted in British media as being in favour.
“Our ability to unite in common action with other nations is essential, it is the bedrock of our security and prosperity,” the prince said.
The “Leave” camp:
- Ministers: Five of the cabinet’s 22 members have so far come out in favour of Brexit: justice minister Michael Gove, work and pensions minister Iain Duncan Smith, Northern Ireland minister Theresa Villiers, sports and media minister John Whittingdale and Chris Grayling, the cabinet’s representative in parliament.
- Nigel Farage: The head of the anti-EU UK Independence Party (UKIP), who is a member of the European Parliament but failed to get elected to the British parliament last year, has advocated for Britain to leave the EU all of his political life.
Yesterday, Farage tweeted: “June 23rd: our golden opportunity. Let battle be joined. We want our country back”. He said life outside of Europe would mean “control of our borders, global trade deals, making our own laws. An exciting future”.
- Campaign: Various movements have been set up to advocate Brexit from both the right and the left -- among them “Vote Leave”, “Labour Leave”, “Leave.EU”. They have been quick off the starting blocks in the campaign but relations between them have sometimes been tense.
- Business: Some entrepreneurs have spoke out for Brexit, including vacuum cleaner tycoon James Dyson.
The inventor was quoted by the Daily Express as saying that he did not want to stay in a Europe “dominated and bullied” by Germany.
- Celebrities: Only very few cultural figures have declared public support for Brexit. Oscar-winning actor Michael Caine has said Britain should leave if it does not manage to negotiate “extremely significant changes”. “I sort of feel certain we should come out,” the 82-year-old told BBC radio.
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