LONDON: Prime Minister David Cameron had barely tasted his surprise election victory before attention turned to Britain’s future in Europe and the onerous task of quelling rebellious euroskeptics within party ranks.
In some of his first comments since winning Thursday’s election, Cameron said he had contacted European Union leaders to begin renegotiation of Britain’s terms of membership, before holding an in-out referendum.
“I’ve already made some calls to European leaders,” Cameron told Channel Four news. “The renegotiation first, then the referendum before the end of 2017.”
Cameron says he will campaign to stay in the EU, but only if he can secure reforms such as changes on migration and benefits and the repatriation of certain powers to London.
The center-right leader will have to strike a delicate balance to both appease partners and the anti-EU faction of his Conservative party, who quickly put pressure on the prime minister on the subject.
On Sunday, influential MP Graham Brady urged Cameron to allow euroskeptic ministers to campaign for Britain to leave the EU if they wish, in order to avoid the appearance of a “rancorous split”.
“The more you try to constrain people’s views, to limit debate, the more you create tensions which needn’t necessarily be there,” Brady told BBC radio.
Cameron’s narrow majority of just 12 seats in parliament means the euroskeptics’ influence is amplified as just seven need to rebel to stop a bill passing.
The new situation has raised comparisons with that of former prime minister John Major, who was tormented by Tory rebels during negotiations to create the European Union with the Maastricht Treaty.
British newspaper front pages on Monday indicated trouble ahead. The Daily Express’ headline was “Britain to get tough with EU: At last!” while i newspaper declared “Europe: the battle begins”.
Meanwhile in an editorial, The Times said a plan to share refugees arriving from outside the EU among the bloc’s 28 countries posed a “direct threat to British membership”.
The Home Office said Britain was prepared to “oppose any EU Commission proposals to introduce a non-voluntary quota” of refugees.
Cameron may try to capitalize on his current popularity and force through change before the summer.
The premier is set to send finance minister George Osborne and foreign minister Philip Hammond to Berlin and Brussels to negotiate a new deal, according to the Sunday Times.