Prime Minister David Cameron on Saturday announced a referendum on June 23 on Britain’s membership of the European Union, describing it as a historic opportunity to settle the question of the country’s future in the 28-member bloc.
The announcement came hours after Cameron secured a controversial deal from the EU on Britain’s “special status” following two days of intense negotiations in Brussels.
Campaigning began right away, with Cameron outlining his government’s pro-EU stance, while Brexit supporters rubbished the deal that, they alleged, was not legally binding or irreversible.
Britain’s minister of state for employment, Priti Patel, also the “Indian diaspora champion”, is known for her views against the European Union and predictably joined the Brexit camp. She joined several ministers in the Cameron government who will campaign for Britain to leave the European Union.
The question on the referendum paper and other details were finalised in an act of parliament in 2015. Cameron held a specially convened cabinet meeting – the first on a Saturday since the 1982 Falklands war – and appealed to people to vote to stay in the EU.
The issue of Britain’s EU membership is important for India and to more than 800 Indian companies who use their base in London and other parts of Britain as a gateway to Europe. A vote to leave the EU will have implications for their continued presence in Britain.
There were carping comments in eastern Europe and other countries over the two-day European Council meeting in Brussels giving in to Britain’s “blackmail” and for going out of the way to accommodate richer EU nations while making it impossible for others to secure any concessions.
There was much wrangling and bargaining in return for agreeing to Britain’s demands. For example, Greece wanted Britain’s support in dealing with challenges it faces while coping with the large number of Syrian migrants who first reach its shores on the way to Europe.
Poland and three east European countries wanted Britain’s support – and secured it – for stationing NATO forces, a demand that has engaged European leaders for some time.
Despite misgivings, each member-state agreed in the end to give up some of their interests for the larger good of keeping Britain – one of the largest financial contributors to Brussels – inside the EU. Many leaders later said they could not envisage an EU without Britain in it.
The deal, which Cameron claimed meets all his demands and gives Britain a “special status” in the EU following months of tough negotiations, will be implemented only if the British people vote to remain in the EU in the referendum. The demands related to economic governance, immigration, competitiveness, and sovereignty.
Cameron said he would campaign with his “heart and soul” for Britain to remain in the grouping. The opposition Labour party has already made known its pro-EU stand. Two cross-party camps – “Remain” and “Leave” – will campaign before the referendum.
Cameron’s justice secretary and close ally, Michael Gove, made it known he would campaign for the “Leave EU” camp, but home secretary Theresa May extended her support to the pro-EU camp. Employment minister Priti Patel is expected to be in the Brexit camp.
Eurosceptics remained opposed to the deal, claiming it did not change anything on the ground. They said it did not ensure any less migration from within the EU, or prevent Britain being forced to implements fewer EU laws and directives, or allow Britain to block unwanted EU laws.
Matthew Elliott, chief executive of the Vote Leave campaign, said Cameron “will now declare victory but it is an entirely hollow one”, and disputed his claim the deal was legally binding, saying it “can be ripped up by EU politicians and unelected EU judges”.
Speaking at a lengthy news conference in Brussels after announcing details of the agreement, Cameron launched the “Remain in EU” campaign, claiming the reforms he had secured would put the UK “in the driving seat” of one of the world’s biggest markets and create a “more flexible” EU.
“The British people must now decide whether to stay in this reformed European Union or to leave. This will be a once-in-a-generation moment to shape the destiny of our country,” Cameron said.
His party MP, David Davis, said it was time for Britain “to take control of its own destiny”, while UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage said the cross-party campaign was “absolutely united in fighting to get back our democracy”.