British MPs to vote on EU referendum bill

British MPs to vote on EU referendum bill
PHOTO: AFP

LONDON - Arguments over whether Britain should stay in the European Union took centre stage in parliament on Tuesday as lawmakers held their first debate on legislation underpinning an in-or-out referendum.

Opening the day-long session in the lower House of Commons, Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said many Britons felt "the EU has come to feel like something that is done to them, not for them".

The mandate for Britain's membership was "wafer thin" and needed renewal, he added.

Prime Minister David Cameron's government is expected to win the vote on the EU Referendum Bill at the end of the day's debate but the bill must pass through several other stages in parliament before becoming law.

The referendum, which is due by the end of 2017 but could be held as early as next year, was triggered when Cameron's centre-right Conservatives won a majority in last month's general election. It is one of the top items on his legislative agenda.

The prime minister is holding a wave of talks with other European leaders in a bid to win reforms to the EU which he says are necessary ahead of the referendum.

He is expected to outline formally a list of demands at a European Council summit later this month. These are expected to include making it harder for EU migrants to claim state benefits in Britain.

Cameron says he will vote in favour of remaining in the EU if he can secure the changes he wants, while opinion polling currently suggests British voters would back staying in Europe.

"The fragility of the EU's democratic legitimacy is felt particularly acutely by the British people," Hammond said.

"It is time to bring Europe back to the people, ensuring decisions are made as close to them as possible and giving national parliaments a greater role in overseeing the European Union."

Trouble ahead? 

The bill outlines that the referendum must be held before the end of 2017 and that the ballot paper question will be "Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union?"

It also stipulates that, with a couple of tiny exceptions, only those entitled to vote in a British general election will be entitled to vote, controversially excluding EU nationals living in Britain, plus 16 and 17-year-olds.

The pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP), the Commons' third biggest party since May's election, opposes the bill on these grounds.

It also wants it to include a measure being debated by MPs which would mean that, if Scots voted to stay in the EU while English voters backed leaving, Scotland would not be forced out against its will.

The Commons vote comes after comments by Cameron triggered a row over whether ministers in his government would have to resign if they did not campaign for Britain to stay in the bloc.

This highlighted problems the prime minister could face navigating his way to a referendum with only a 12-seat majority and dozens of Conservative MPs who want to leave Europe whatever his renegotiation efforts deliver.

Cameron said on Sunday: "If you want to be part of the government you have to take the view that we are engaged in an exercise of renegotiation to have a referendum and that will lead to a successful outcome."

That was interpreted by media and some eurosceptic MPs as meaning that those who wanted to vote against EU membership would have to quit the government.

But Cameron's spokeswoman insisted he had not yet decided whether ministers would be allowed to campaign on different sides in the referendum.

"All the government are behind engaging with our European partners to renegotiate the UK's relationship," she said.

"The decision on the approach during the referendum is further down the road."

London Mayor Boris Johnson, a newly elected MP seen as a potential successor to Cameron, told LBC radio Tuesday it would be "safer and more harmonious" for him to let ministers campaign to leave the EU.

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