British EU referendum bill passes first hurdle of many

Agence France-Presse
The legislation guaranteeing an in-out referendum on Britain's membership of the European Union (EU) by 2017 passes the first hurdle

FIRST OF MANY. The legislation guaranteeing an in-out referendum on Britain's membership of the European Union (EU) by 2017 passes the first hurdle. Photo by AFP

LONDON, United Kingdom – Legislation that would guarantee an in-out referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union (EU) by 2017 cleared its first hurdle in the House of Commons on Friday, July 5.

In a rare unanimous result, lawmakers in the lower house voted 304 to zero to send the bill to the next stage of the parliamentary process, although there is only a slim chance it will become a law.

MPs from Prime Minister David Cameron’s eurosceptic Conservative Party turned out in force for the first debate in the 650-seat House of Commons on the proposal.

The pro-European Liberal Democrats, the junior partners in Cameron’s coalition government, and the opposition Labor Party both oppose the bill and mostly stayed away.

Foreign Secretary William Hague said he was “very happy”.

Labor had tried to derail the bill using a parliamentary blocking tactic, he said, which “suggests that they will at later stages try to block this in various ways”.

“But it’s a good start to the bill, it reinforces our commitment to a referendum by the end of 2017, in or out of a reformed European Union,” he told the BBC.

The legislation enshrines in law Cameron’s promise to renegotiate the terms of Britain’s membership and then hold a referendum after the 2015 general election.

He made the pledge under pressure from his party’s rebellious right flank, and with an eye on the electoral threat posed by the anti-EU UK Independence Party (UKIP).

Lib Dem opposition prevents Cameron from proposing a government bill, so he has instead taken the unusual route of backing an individual Conservative MP to push the referendum plan through parliament.

There were loud cheers in the chamber as the vote was read out, following a high spirited debate in which the Conservatives showed rare unity in presenting themselves as the only party giving British voters a choice on Europe.

Cameron, who had ordered all his MPs to vote for the bill, set out his support in an email to activists on Thursday, July 4.

“For decades, politicians have denied the British people a voice on Europe. Tomorrow (Friday) the Conservative Party will fight to give them one. And let us all be proud of that,” he wrote.

The bill was presented by James Wharton, the youngest Conservative MP in parliament, after he came out top in a ballot of private members’ bills.

Opening the debate on Friday morning, he said he believed it spoke for “many millions” among the British people, who have not had a vote on EU membership since 1975.

An ICM poll published last month found 35% of people support an immediate referendum. Some 43% said they would vote to leave the EU, and 40% would vote to stay.

The Lib Dems, led by Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, have rejected the bill as a “parliamentary stunt”.

And Labor has said Cameron is wasting his time within internal politics and should get back to running the country. However, 6 Labor MPs voted for the bill on Friday.

Europe has long been a toxic issue for the Conservatives, leading to the downfall of late prime minister Margaret Thatcher in 1990 and weakening her successor John Major. –

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