British PM squares up for EU referendum fight

February 23, 2016 | 09:39
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The Conservative leader will present to parliament the reforms secured at an EU summit in Brussels last week which he argues give Britain "special status" .
Prime Minister David Cameron warns that Britain would still have to negotiate trade ties with the EU if it left the bloc and that a departure would give an "illusion of sovereignty" AFP/Niklas Halle'n

LONDON: Prime Minister David Cameron will seek Monday (Feb 22) to persuade lawmakers that Britain's future lies in the European Union, as he squares up for a referendum fight against charismatic London mayor Boris Johnson.

The Conservative leader will present to parliament the reforms secured at an EU summit in Brussels last week which he argues give Britain "special status" and are enough reason to vote to stay in the 28-member bloc in a June 23 referendum.

But he is facing a major challenge in Johnson, a Conservative rival who manages to reach across the political divide and is tipped as a future prime minister.

Johnson electrified the political landscape on Sunday by throwing his weight behind the campaign for a so-called "Brexit", which until then had been marred by in-fighting and a lack of leadership.

"Cameron's worst fear," the right-wing Daily Telegraph said of Johnson's declaration, while the left-leaning Daily Mirror said it was a "Dagger in Cam's heart".

Five cabinet ministers have already declared themselves in favour of the "Leave" campaign and reports suggest around a third of Cameron's 330 lawmakers could back a "Brexit".

Britain, which first joined the then European Economic Community (EEC) in 1973, has long had strained relations with the bloc, opting out of key projects including the euro and the Schengen passport-free zone.

Any departure would pose a major headache for the European Union, already grappling with its biggest migration crisis since World War II. The June referendum will be Britain's second on European membership in just over 30 years after voters in 1975 backed membership of the then EEC by just over 67 per cent.

Defence Secretary Michael Fallon sought to play down the impact of Johnson's defection.

"Obviously you would have liked more support from Boris but he has taken his individual view," Fallon told BBC radio. As well as being mayor, Johnson is a member of parliament and is expected to attend the House of Commons debate which begins at 1530 GMT - and where sparks could fly.


In a column for the Daily Telegraph, Johnson said the EU project had "morphed and grown in such a way as to be unrecognisable" and insisted there was nothing xenophobic about wanting to go it alone.

"We are seeing a slow and invisible process of legal colonisation, as the EU infiltrates just about every area of public policy," he said, adding that the referendum was a one-in-a-lifetime chance to change Britain's relations with Europe.

"There is only one way to get the change we need, and that is to vote to go, because all EU history shows that they only really listen to a population when it says No."

Johnson's intervention adds credibility to the "Leave" campaign, which includes figures as diverse as anti-immigration UK Independent Party (UKIP) leader Nigel Farage and maverick far-left former lawmaker George Galloway.

But analysts warned against exaggerating Johnson's influence and said his decision was partly driven by his ambitions to one day lead the Conservative party.

"Cameron is a major asset for the Remain camp," said Matthew Goodwin, politics professor at the University of Kent.

He said Cameron still had all senior cabinet ministers on his side, including the finance, defence, foreign and interior ministers. He also has the backing of three former prime ministers, the City of London, Europe's biggest financial hub, and the main centre-left opposition Labour Party.

"Boris Johnson is an important figure but on his own there's very little evidence that he can change the overall result," Goodwin told AFP.

Anand Menon, a European politics professor at King's College London, added: "If David Cameron and (finance minister) George Osborne decide to play hardball and to really go for Boris's record then the tone will change and things will get nasty.

"If they manage to keep it at a certain level of politeness then things will be very different."


Cameron has defended his Brussels renegotiation by warning the country would lose power if it left the EU.

"Yes, of course if Britain were to leave the EU that might give you a feeling of sovereignty but you've got to ask yourself 'is it real?'," he said.

A Survation/Mail on Sunday poll, the first since the Brussels deal, found 48 percent of Britons did not want to leave the EU, 33 per cent did and 19 per cent were undecided.

The pound weakened on Monday as Johnson's move compounded uncertainty about the referendum outcome. It weakened to US$1.4173 compared to US$1.4392 at the close of trading on Friday, and from 78.03 pence to the euro from 77.35 pence.

"For sterling, this won't be a fun time," commented Simon Smith, chief economist at FxPro.


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