U.K. lawmakers debate leaving the European Union

May 13, 2013

British Prime Minister David Cameron discussed a referendum to leave the EU at a press conference with President Obama on Monday. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

LONDON — As Prime Minister David Cameron met with President Obama in Washington on Monday to discuss the benefits of a new trade agreement between the United States and Europe, a storm was brewing across the Atlantic over whether Britain should exit the European Union.

Education Secretary Michael Gove and Defense Secretary Philip Hammond, both members of the Conservative Party, escalated tensions in Parliament on Sunday when both said that if a referendum were held now, they would vote for Britain to leave the 27-nation bloc.

Gove, who is one of the most senior Conservatives to speak out in support of Britain exiting the EU, said Sunday that should that happen, “life outside would be perfectly tolerable,” and that there would even be some advantages. Hammond echoed Gove’s remarks saying, he is on Gove’s “side of the argument.”

London Mayor Boris Johnson did not join fellow conservatives in outright advocating the nation’s withdrawal from the EU, but he told the BBC on Friday that Britain must be prepared to pull out, and that an exit would not be as “cataclysmic” to the U.K. economy as some EU supporters claim.

The remarks from senior members of Cameron’s cabinet made for awkward timing as the prime minister pressed Obama for a long-term EU-U.S. trade deal, which he says would bring Britain’s economy more than $15 billion a year.

“We have a special relationship with the U.K. and we believe that our capacity to partner with a United Kingdom that is active, robust, outward-looking and engaged with the world is hugely important to our own interests as well as the world.” Obama said at a news conference with Cameron in Washington on Monday. “And I think that the U.K.’s participation in the EU is an expression of its influence and its role in the world.”

Obama added that Cameron’s, “basic point that you probably want to see if you can fix what’s broken in a very important relationship before you break it off makes some sense to me.”

Cameron, who has promised a referendum on Britain’s membership in the EU before the end of 2017, if he is reelected, also reiterated his position that no vote would be held before renegotiating the U.K.’s position within the union.

“There’s not going to be a referendum tomorrow,” Cameron told the BBC following Gove and Hammond’s comments. “There is going to be a referendum before the end of 2017, and between now and then the task is to renegotiate our position, to reform the European Union, to put a real choice to the British people. ... I don’t think the status quo in the European Union is acceptable today.”

Despite the pledge, some Conservatives still think Cameron needs to do more to toughen his line on Europe.

Some 100 Conservative lawmakers have pressed Cameron for legislation in the current Parliament that would pave the way for a future referendum. The lawmakers, who also called for the legislation to be included in last week’s Queen’s Speech, have now tabled an amendment articulating their regret of its omission. Members of Parliament will have a chance to debate the amendment and a referendum plan on Wednesday.

Former foreign secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind told the BBC on Monday that a vote on the amendment would put Cameron in an “impossible situation.”

“All they will achieve is splitting their party, raising questions about the prime minister’s authority,” Rifkind said.

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Max Fisher · May 13, 2013