UK Conservatives fire early shots in EU battle
7 October 2015, Nirapad News: Conservative MPs have already begun the debate over the referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union, reopening old divisions that once nearly sank the party.
Prime Minister David Cameron has yet to set the date for the in-out
referendum — promised by the end of 2017 — and is still to negotiate pledged reforms with European partners, but the issue has dominated many fringe events at the party’s annual conference in Manchester this week.
“I believe that membership of the EU makes us a stronger country, more prosperous and more secure,” said MP Damian Green, chairman of the Conservative European Mainstream group.
“That argument has to be made between now and the referendum, and in particular that argument has to be made inside the Conservative Party.”
Fellow MP Gerald Howarth, who has vowed to vote “No” whatever concessions Cameron gains, disagreed.
“Have a look and see how this organisation has evolved since the British people last have a vote in 1975: they change their name and they introduce a shedload of more regulations and we have transferred a shedload of powers,” Howarth said.
– ‘A very difficult campaign’ –
It is currently hard to gauge the relative strength of the party’s
There are 22 Tory MPs firmly in favour of a “Brexit”, while 47 are leaning towards a “No” vote, according to a study published last week by the think-tank Open Europe.
Only 14 are firmly in favour of staying in, while around 200 remain
undecided, said the study.
“It is going to be a very, very difficult campaign,” admitted europhile MP Anna Soubry, the minister for small business.
“We should never underestimate the passion, some would say the obsession, that those who want us to leave have.”
Britain’s loudest anti-EU voice for over two decades has been Nigel Farage, head of the UK Independence Party (UKIP).
However, eurosceptic Conservatives have been keen to distance themselves both from Farage and his “Leave.EU” platform, on which he is campaigning for an exit.
Nigel Lawson, finance minister under Margaret Thatcher, on Thursday
announced he would head the eurosceptic group “Conservatives for Britain”, to prevent “xenophobic voices” monopolising the debate.
– Cameron ‘can’t guarantee’ reforms –
One thing on which both europhile and eurosceptic Conservatives agree is the need to reform the 28-member bloc.
While the former group believes that it is better to influence the reform process from within, the latter consider it to be a waste of time.
“We’re not going to get the changes that most of us want,” said MP Steve Baker, co-president of Conservatives for Britain.
Even Cameron has warned his attempts at reform may be fruitless.
“Right now I’m fighting and I can’t guarantee I will get them. If I can’t get the things Britain needs then I don’t rule anything out.”
Matthew Elliott, chief executive of campaign group Business for Britain, said: “It’s important that we keep the ‘leave’ option on the table in case we don’t get the changes that the country so desperately needs.
“I would rather see Britain out of the EU rather than being part of a growing superstate.”
Cameron has yet to secure any concrete gains from a string of meetings with Europe’s leaders, which will continue this week with the visit of German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
She will be welcomed at Cameron’s country residence Chequers on Friday, when the prime minister will be celebrating his 49th birthday.