LONDON: Britain will vote on its membership of the European Union on June 23, Prime Minister David Cameron said Saturday, as he began the daunting challenge of persuading the country to stay in the bloc.
He announced the date for the referendum after a two-hour cabinet meeting where he briefed ministers on the deal he struck in Brussels on Friday, which he said would give Britain “special status” in the EU.
“We are approaching one of the biggest decisions this country will face in our lifetimes,” Cameron said, addressing the nation outside his 10 Downing Street residence.
“The choice goes to the kind of country we want to be,” he said, warning that proponents of leaving were offering “a risk at a time of uncertainty, a leap in the dark.”
Britain would be “safer, stronger and better off” in the 28-member bloc, he said, calling the concessions negotiated with other EU leaders “the best of both worlds.”
The referendum campaign will be bitterly contested in a country with a long tradition of euroskepticism and a hostile right-wing press, with most opinion polls showing Britons are almost evenly divided.
“The 23rd is our golden opportunity, let battle be joined,” said the leader of the anti-EU UK Independence Party (UKIP) party, Nigel Farage, branding the deal “pathetic.”
Cameron’s Conservative Party is particularly split, and no sooner had Saturday’s cabinet meeting ended than six of its 22 ministers announced they would be campaigning to leave.
Among them is justice minister Michael Gove, who said, “This chance may never come again in our lifetimes.”
Around 50 Conservative MPs had by Saturday come out in favor of leaving, while pro-EU MP Nick Herbert tweeted 100 Tory MPs would back Britain staying in — almost half the 330 lawmakers the party has in parliament.
A bigger blow for Cameron would be the loss of popular London mayor Boris Johnson to the euroskeptic camp, which has so far been plagued by in-fighting and has no clear leader.
According to reports, Johnson will reveal his decision in a newspaper column on Monday.
The Mail on Sunday carried good news for Cameron with a Survation telephone poll showing the “in” campaign with a 15 percent lead, a huge swing from level previous surveys.
Cameron announced his intention to hold a referendum three years ago, under pressure from Conservative euroskeptics and the rise of UKIP.
He said he would only campaign to stay in if he could secure reforms to address key concerns about EU migration, loss of sovereignty, economic competitiveness and the protection of non-eurozone Britain’s financial sector.
Cameron said he would campaign “with all my heart and soul” to stay, a position supported by the opposition Labor Party, whose leader Jeremy Corbyn criticized the deal but said being in Europe had brought Britain investment and jobs.
France’s Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault also defended the deal in an interview published on Sunday, saying it “simply demonstrates Europe’s diversity.”
“It does not undo what has been done or hinder those who want to go further. The base principles and founding values of the EU remain,” he told France’s Journal du Dimanche.
But critics in Britain say the deal, which contained restrictions on welfare payments for EU migrants and an opt-out for Britain from the EU’s goal towards ever-closer union, fell short.
“Call that a Deal, Dave?” headlined the Daily Mail, while The Daily Telegraph said Cameron had made “puny gains” and The Times called it “thin gruel.”
Analysts say the nitty-gritty of the EU deal will likely be only a small part of the referendum campaign, which is already focused on immigration, security, prosperity and Britain’s place in the world.
“Voters are not going to decide by this deal,” said John Springford, senior research fellow at think tank, the Center for European Reform.
Anand Menon, professor of European politics at King’s College London, said he expected both sides to emphasize the risks of either leaving or sticking with the status quo.
“This is going to be a depressingly negative campaign,” he told AFP.
The date for the referendum, which clashes with the Glastonbury music festival, an EU summit in Brussels, and comes in the middle of the Euro 2016 football tournament, has to be approved by parliament. Cameron will address the House of Commons on Monday.
The question on June 23 will be: “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?”