LONDON (AFP) — Britain will vote on its membership in 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.
He announced the date for the referendum after a two-hour cabinet meeting where he outlined the deal he struck in Brussels on Friday that he said will give Britain “special status” in the EU.
“We are approaching one of the biggest decisions this country will face in our lifetimes,” he 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 bloc, he said, calling the concessions negotiated with other EU leaders “the best of both worlds.”
The campaign will be bitterly contested in a country with a long tradition of euroscepticism and a hostile right-wing press, with opinion polls showing Britons are almost evenly divided.
Cameron’s Conservative party has long been split over Europe and the premier held an emergency cabinet meeting on Saturday to try to persuade ministers to his cause.
But no sooner had the talks ended than five of the cabinet’s 22 ministers announced they would be campaigning to leave, including justice minister Michael Gove.
The position of the popular Conservative Mayor of London Boris Johnson, which could sway many voters, remained unclear.
The deal secured after two days of negotiations in Brussels was only the start of a long battle for Cameron as he seeks to stop Britain becoming the first country to leave the EU.
Cameron has said he will campaign “with all my heart and soul” for a vote to stay.
Many British newspapers reacted sceptically to the Brussels 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.
“Cameron’s Climbdown,” read a headline on the Daily Express website, while the Daily Mail said: “Call that a Deal, Dave?”
The Daily Telegraph said Cameron had made “puny gains” and The Times called it “Thin Gruel.”
Nigel Farage, whose UK Independence Party (UKIP) helped create the pressure that forced Cameron into calling the referendum three years ago, also said the deal was “pathetic.”
He welcomed the date for the referendum as a “golden opportunity,” saying: “Let battle be joined. We want our country back.”
The campaigns for and against staying in the EU are already mobilized, and analysts say they will focus less on the nitty gritty of Brussels deal and more on wider issues of security, sovereignty, immigration and jobs.
Opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn called the deal a “sideshow” but said he would campaign to stay in the EU because the bloc “brings investment, jobs and protection for British workers and consumers.”
“The package will persuade few voters of the merits of the EU,” John Springford, senior research fellow at the Center for European Reform, said in a commentary.
“Cameron’s best chance of success is to shift the debate from his reforms to the more lofty terrain, away from arguments about banking safeguards and migrants’ benefits towards a contest over how to secure Britain’s interests in Europe and the rest of the world.”
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.
Cameron will on Monday address parliament, which has to approve the date for Britain’s second referendum on European membership in just over 40 years.
In June 1975, voters backed membership of the then European Economic Community (EEC) by just over 67 percent.