British Prime Minister David Cameron faced the wrath of his own side in parliament on Wednesday, where he stood up to defend a deal to keep Britain in the European Union that was savaged by many of his fellow Conservatives and the eurosceptic press.
Cameron has all but fired the starting gun for a membership referendum by throwing his weight behind a reform plan presented by European Council President Donald Tusk on Tuesday, and the battle lines are being clearly drawn.
The deal has so far received a warm response from European capitals which must approve it. But at home, it risks reopening a longstanding rift in Cameron’s Conservative Party, which has been plagued by division over Europe for generations.
Former defence secretary Liam Fox, a leading eurosceptic Conservative lawmaker, told BBC radio that up to five ministers in the prime minister’s cabinet were certain to back leaving the EU.
Many British newspapers trashed the deal, dubbing it a “farce”, a “joke” or a “delusion”, underlining the struggle Cameron faces to convince doubters inside and outside his party that the plan offers the “best of both worlds” before a referendum on membership which could take place in June.
Cameron has said ministers are free to campaign on either side of the referendum after a deal is reached, but is hoping that leading figures including members of his cabinet will follow his lead.
Even some of Cameron’s allies have questioned the package of measures offered by Brussels. London’s popular Mayor Boris Johnson, a possible Conservative successor to Cameron who has been coy so far about his own position, said: “Most people looking at this will think that there is a lot more to do.”
Britain’s bestselling newspaper, the Sun, said Cameron had done “nothing to halt migrants, nothing to win powers back for Britain”. “Sorry prime minister, but … it stinks,” said the Sun, which is owned by one of the world’s most powerful media barons, Rupert Murdoch.
Cameron also has to convince other EU leaders that the plan, which offers measures to curb benefits for migrants from other EU states in Britain, will not harm their countries’ interests or cause a voter backlash against them.
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker welcomed the plan as one that was fair for all involved.
“I have always said I want the UK to remain a member of the European Union on the basis of a fair deal. The settlement that has been proposed is fair for the UK and fair for the other 27 members,” Juncker told the European Parliament which must pass the measures if leaders agree at a Feb. 18-19 summit.
The Dutch foreign minister, Bert Koenders, said the proposal “paves the way for an agreement in the European Council”, which brings together leaders of EU member states.
Even some eastern European countries, which initially balked at Britain’s plans to restrict welfare payments to EU migrants, were supportive or at least said they would study the deal.
“There is a clause saying that in the case of a sudden influx of wage migrants some payments could be curbed. We will see what the interpretation (of the clause) is,” Polish President Andrzej Duda said.
Cameron has spent months trying to secure a deal so that he can campaign to stay in a reformed EU. He promised the referendum in 2013 to try to put to rest the divisive subject of Europe that dogged his Conservative predecessor John Major and brought down his hero, Margaret Thatcher.
The stakes are high. A vote to leave would not only transform Britain’s future role in world trade and affairs, but also shape the EU, which has struggled to maintain unity over migration and financial crises, by ripping away its second-largest economy and one of its two main military powers.
Britons are split over EU membership and, while opinion polls have shown that Cameron’s support of the ‘in’ campaign may boost the numbers wanting to remain, it is clear he faces a struggle against a largely hostile press.
Cameron aims to persuade lawmakers that he has secured the right measures needed to curb migration into Britain, return powers to London, protect the City financial district and boost competitiveness.