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British PM weakened in EU after revolt within own party

British Prime Minister David Cameron's standing within Europe could weaken after members of his own party rebelled and voted in favor of a bill that would tie the UK's European Union membership to a popular referendum.

British PM David Cameron in parliament

Many Conservatives mutinied over the UK's role in Europe

Eighty-one MPs from British Prime Minister David Cameron's own party refused Monday to follow his orders to vote no to staging a referendum asking whether the UK should stay in the European Union, renegotiate its membership or leave the union.

With backing from the other major parties in parliament, Cameron managed to win the vote with a comfortable majority, which means there will be no referendum for now.

Yet the result has opened old and serious divisions within the Conservative Party over Europe, and will be seen by many as having done considerable damage to Cameron's authority.

EU position 'seriously undermined'

The revolt could also have consequences for the prime minister's standing with other European leaders. Last weekend, French President Nicolas Sarkozy told Cameron to shut up and stop interfering in meetings aimed at resolving the eurozone's crisis. When Cameron arrives at the second EU summit in Brussels on Wednesday, the revolt within his own party on Europe won't help, some commentators say.

"I think it's going to undermine his position quite considerably," said Colin Talbot, a political scientist at the University of Manchester.

"He's going to go and try to lecture Europeans, particularly eurozone members, about how to sort out the eurozone problems at the same time as not actually being able to control his own party in parliament - it's going to undermine his position quite considerably."

Growing anti-EU sentiment

Cameron with German Chancellor Merkel and French President Sarkozy

Cameron's relationship with eurozone leaders has grown tense in recent days

The rebel MPs have tapped into a growing public discontent with the European Union. As severe budget cuts start to bite at home, there is little appetite in the UK for dishing out more money to help the eurozone and a beleaguered Greece.

Many of the Conservative rebels argued that a majority of Brits want to see a referendum on the EU, quoting recent opinion polls showing 66 percent of people in favor of a referendum - although most of them wanted a renegotiated membership deal rather than to leave the club altogether.

"This is basically about democracy. The British people have long wanted a referendum on the European Union, we haven't had one since 1975. David Cameron is not only taking on the Conservative Party, he's taking on the whole public opinion," said Bernard Jenkin, one of the dissenting MPs.

Yet some commentators say the current economic climate makes it particularly dangerous for Conservative MPs to play the euroskeptic card.

"We're not just next to Europe, we do 50 percent of our trade with Europe," said David Rennie, a columnist with The Economist.

"We do 40 percent of our trade with the eurozone and the regulations that could come out of a new hard-line eurozone, run by France and Germany, that starts grabbing business out of the city of London saying, 'If you want to do euro denominated business in this or that it has to be done in Frankfurt, has to be done in Paris' - this affects us to an enormous [extent]," he said.

Labour leader Ed Miliband

Milliband called the revolt a humiliation for Cameron

Conservative party split

Cameron had said that while he supported the idea of a referendum on the UK's EU membership, now was not the right time, as the EU was arguably facing its worst crisis yet.

The prime minister argued this would create a dangerous distraction not only within the EU, but for the British economy as well. His government is struggling to control an enormous public deficit.

But the fact that nearly half of Conservative MPs chose to ignore their party leader on this issue will be seen by many as proof the party still has not come to grips with its old divisions over Europe.

Opposition Labour leader Ed Milliband called the revolt a humiliation for Cameron.

"If he can't win the argument with his own backbenchers, how can the country have confidence that he can win the arguments that matter for Britain?" said Milliband.

On Tuesday, the Conservative leadership was keen to minimize the impact of the rebellion over the EU referendum vote. Education Secretary Michael Gove said the government and MPs were united when it came to getting more powers back from Europe.

Yet newspaper commentators from both sides of the political spectrum broadly agreed the parliamentary vote was a considerable setback for the prime minister, and one he did not need in a week of crucial negotiations in Brussels over the crisis in the eurozone.

Author: Lars Bevanger / slk
Editor: Martin Kuebler

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