Cameron: Referendum on EU set for June 23

British Prime Minister David Cameron delivering a statement on his EU deal in London, Britain, on Feb 20, 2016.
British Prime Minister David Cameron delivering a statement on his EU deal in London, Britain, on Feb 20, 2016. PHOTO: EPA

He is set to fight for Britain to remain in EU after striking deal on special concessions

Prime Minister David Cameron has called a snap referendum on Bri- tain's continued membership in the European Union, after striking a deal with other EU members on a package of measures which gives the country special advantages no other member currently enjoys.

At the end of yesterday's emergency Cabinet meeting in London - the first held on a Saturday since the Falklands War more than three decades ago - Mr Cameron announced that the referendum will take place on June 23.

And although he vowed to fight with his "heart and soul" for Britain to remain in the EU, some key members of his government are already poised to campaign for a "no" vote. And opinion polls indicate that the outcome of the referendum is currently too close to call.

With his own ruling Conservative party deeply split over the issue, Mr Cameron promised during last year's general election that he would renegotiate Britain's terms of membership, and give voters the chance to decide whether this is sufficient to stay in the EU.

Few believed that he would succeed in extracting meaningful concessions from Europe. Yet after months of intensive backroom diplomacy and two days plus one sleepless night at an EU summit which concluded in the early hours of yesterday, Mr Cameron obtained most of the concessions he sought.

Few believed that he would succeed in extracting meaningful concessions from Europe. Yet after months of intensive backroom diplomacy and two days plus one sleepless night at an EU summit which concluded in the early hours of yesterday, Mr Cameron obtained most of the concessions he sought.

Britain got a promise that if it remains in the EU, it would be exempt from any future obligations to give up more of its sovereignty, and "can never be forced into political integration". Mr Cameron also obtained a guarantee that although Britain is outside the euro single currency zone, the City of London, Europe's top financial centre, will be granted "an emergency safeguard" to protect it from any future Europe-wide financial regulation.

Yet by far the most politically significant is Britain's victory in gaining an exemption from the obligation to provide EU migrant workers in Britain the same social security benefits paid to its citizens, as was the case until now.

The British obtained the right to impose an "emergency brake" on welfare payments for seven years, as well as powers to restrict child benefits right into the next decade.

Mr Cameron hopes this should be sufficient to persuade most Britons to vote for staying in the EU. But opinion polls suggest this cannot be taken for granted. An average of all surveys conducted since December shows that although about 50 per cent of decided voters want Britain to stay in the EU, about 47 per cent don't, and the number of undecided remains abnormally high, at around a fifth of the electorate.

Much will, therefore, depend on whether Britain's politicians can present a united front in arguing the case for continued EU membership. And the omens are not great.

Aware he cannot insist on normal Cabinet discipline, Mr Cameron is allowing his ministers to campaign, from today, either for or against the EU. Most of the top ministers are siding with the "yes" camp.

But none are doing so enthusiastically. Finance minister George Osborne recommends acceptance of the EU deal, not because it would settle Britain's differences with Europe, but more because it would give Britons "the best of both worlds" - that is all the advantages of EU membership without supposedly any of the obligations - hardly a ringing endorsement.

Meanwhile, other political heavy- hitters, such as Justice Secretary Michael Gove, are committed to the "leave" camp, as are up to 100 of the 330 sitting Conservative MPs. But the biggest worry for Mr Cameron is the stance of London Mayor Boris Johnson, a rising star in the party and a magnet for people disaffected with the government.

There is also the thorny problem of Scotland. The separatist Scottish National Party which rules the region has threatened that, if Britons vote to leave the EU, Scotland will insist on another referendum to declare independence from the UK.

Mr Cameron hopes the spectre of economic and political mayhem would persuade people to vote for the status quo; anything else, the Premier said in a message to his nation yesterday, "is a risk at a time of uncertainty, a leap in the dark".

The question for the British government is whether this sort of negative campaigning can ever produce a positive result.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 21, 2016, with the headline 'Cameron: Referendum on EU set for June 23'. Print Edition | Subscribe