After winning EU deal, Britain’s Cameron faces harder battle

After winning EU deal, Britain’s Cameron faces harder battle

LONDON – Reuters
After winning EU deal, Britain’s Cameron faces harder battle

British Prime Minister David Cameron gestures as he addresses the media after a European Union leaders summit in Brussels. REUTERS Photo

When British Prime Minister David Cameron sealed a deal designed to keep Britain in the European Union after two days of talks in Brussels, his relief was short-lived. 

Within hours of the Feb. 19 agreement, one of Cameron’s closest allies, Justice Secretary Michael Gove, and five other ministers declared they would campaign against him in a June 23 referendum on whether Britain should stay in the bloc. 

It was the first blow in what could be a new “civil war” in Cameron’s Conservative Party over Europe. Divisions over Britain’s place in Europe contributed to the downfall of two of his predecessors, John Major and Margaret Thatcher. 

It is a war Cameron tried hard to avoid when he came to power in 2010. The following year he ordered his party in the strictest terms to vote down a bill suggesting a referendum on membership of the EU, saying it was the “wrong answer for Britain.”

But within two years, he had changed his mind, paving the way to a membership referendum, by declaring: “I believe in confronting this issue - shaping it, leading the debate. Not simply hoping a difficult situation will go away.” 

Cameron, 49, now finds himself fighting a referendum which will determine Britain’s future in world affairs and shape the future EU - Britain is the bloc’s second-largest economy and one of its two main military powers. 

In a quirk of the British political system, the prime minister is in the unusual position of being more sure of the backing of the opposition Labour Party than of his own party. 

“He didn’t want a referendum, he was bounced into doing it,”  said Douglas Carswell, a Conservative Party member until he defected to the eurosceptic UK Independence Party (UKIP) in 2014. “He’s been the actor in this production, he is not writing the script, or directing it, or producing it.” 

The deal reached on Feb. 19 followed weeks of negotiations across Europe in which Cameron tried to win better terms for Britain if it remains in the EU, hoping to win over sceptical voters including many in his own party. 

“It pains me to have to disagree with the Prime Minister on any issue. My instinct is to support him through good times and bad. But I cannot duck the choice which the Prime Minister has given every one of us,” said Gove, who a minster in Cameron’s cabinet. 

“I believe our country would be freer, fairer and better off outside the EU.” 

He said he had won his country a “special status” from the agreement, which excludes Britain from the founding goal of “ever closer union” and hands the government welfare curbs to try to tackle concerns over high levels of migration.

Commenting after the deal was struck with Britain, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Feb. 19 that a deal renegotiating Britain’s EU membership was a “fair compromise”.

“It is a fair compromise which was not easy for us in every issue,” Merkel told a press conference after a two-day summit. “I do not think that we gave too much to Great Britain.” 

After the deal, Cameron has launched a major push to win support for his call to keep Britain inside what he says is a “reformed” European Union.

He was scheduled to appear on TV on Feb. 21 to argue that his country’s interests are best served by a vote to remain in the EU in the June 23 referendum.