The British prime minister has said cabinet ministers would not be penalized for their stance on the issue. David Cameron has said he would campaign to stay in the bloc if he succeeds in renegotiating terms with the EU.
"There will be a clear government position but it will be open to individual ministers to take a different personal position while remaining part of the government," British Prime Minister David Cameron told the House of Commons on Tuesday, also announcing a vote of conscience for the Conservative party more generally.
The move was aimed at anti-EU forces within Cameron's Conservative Party vying for a "Brexit" - a term used to describe a possible UK exit from the EU - ahead of the in-or-out referendum, due to take place by the end of 2017.
The Conservatives have always been staunchly divided on the European question, several back-bench MPs have already made it clear that they hope the UK votes to leave the EU. The positions of front-bench ministers in Cameron's cabinet is less cut and dried, but members such as Home Secretary Theresa May and Business Secretary Sajid Javid have expressed euroskeptic sentiments in the past.
Cameron's latest comments suggest that he would not seek to sack ministers who oppose the government's position for breaching the collective cabinet responsibility convention.
Expect defectors, warns Farage
Nigel Farage, the leader of the euroskeptic UK Independence party (UKIP), said Cameron was doing the right thing by allowing government ministers to campaign for their position on the issue.
"He may be surprised now just how many ministers come out in support of leaving," UKIP leader Nigel Farage told Sky News.
The British prime minister has said he would campaign for staying in the EU if he is able to successfully renegotiate the terms of the UK's relationship with the 28-nation bloc.
"Ultimately it will be for the British people to decide this country's future by voting in or out of a reformed European Union in the referendum," Cameron noted during his address.
Macbeth and Merkel
Conservative critics, like MP Jacob Rees-Mogg, have said that the proposed reforms do not go far enough, calling Cameron's four desired changes "pretty thin gruel" in an earlier parliamentary debate. On Tuesday in the Commons, Rees-Mogg switched from a Dickens quote to Shakespeare, citing Macbeth in reference to the prime minister's impending visit to Germany.
Cameron will travel to Bavaria on Thursday to attend the Christian Social Union (CSU) party conference, along with Chancellor Angela Merkel. There, he is expected to receive support for his fourth stated reform goal - unpopular with Poland and other EU members - to limit access to welfare payments for inter-EU migrants who have recently arrived in a new member state. Senior German politicians, even from the center-left Social Democrats, have recently mooted similar measures domestically.
Cameron is expected to continue bloc-wide negotiations at an EU summit in Brussels slated for February. While the referendum must take place by the end of 2017, analysts believe it could be held as early as mid-2016.
ls/msh (Reuters, AFP, AP)