Prime Minister David Cameron rejected demands for a speedy public vote… (Carl Court / Pool Photo )
LONDON — Prime Minister David Cameron moved Monday to beat back a brewing rebellion within his Conservative Party over Britain's membership in the European Union, rejecting demands for a speedy public vote on exiting the trading bloc but insisting that he would offer such a referendum by the end of 2017.
As he met with President Obama in Washington — where Cameron lobbied for a U.S.-EU free-trade pact — the British leader found himself on the defensive at home against members of his party who want their country to withdraw from the 27-nation EU as soon as possible.
Dozens of "Euroskeptic" Conservative lawmakers are backing a measure in Parliament on Wednesday expressing regret over Cameron's failure to commit to legislation that would bind the government to calling a plebiscite. Although the proposal has little chance of passage, the criticism from his own side has heaped pressure on Cameron over an issue that threatens to convulse his party and endanger his leadership of it.
Adding to his woes were comments from two of his Cabinet ministers who said over the weekend that they would vote for Britain to leave the European Union if an immediate referendum were held. And the startling success of an anti-EU group, the UK Independence Party, in local elections this month, largely at the expense of Conservative candidates, has raised the stakes.
Cameron, who favors continued EU membership as long as Britain can reclaim some powers from Brussels, seemed clearly irritated by the open defiance from his backbenches.
"There's not going to be a referendum tomorrow," he told reporters. "There is going to be a referendum before the end of 2017, and between now and then, the task is to renegotiate our position, to reform the European Union, to put a real choice to the British people."
He accused dissidents of "throwing in the towel" on the EU before waiting to see the outcome of Britain's negotiations with its European partners.
Cameron knows he must tread carefully on the issue of Europe, which has historically been a minefield for Tory leaders. The party's two previous prime ministers, John Major and the late Margaret Thatcher, were both toppled from power in part because of domestic controversies over Britain's vexed relations with its continental neighbors.
Some polls show more Britons in favor of quitting the EU, the world's largest trading bloc, than staying in; many here chafe at what they see as overregulation from Brussels and a loss of national sovereignty. Yet Cameron must also hearken to the pro-EU sentiments of the Liberal Democrats, his coalition partners in government, and of big businesses, a key Conservative constituency.
In January, after postponing action for months, Cameron declared that he would try to secure a better deal for Britain in the EU and then put membership to a national vote by the end of 2017, provided the Conservatives win reelection in 2015. But that has not been enough to placate his increasingly vocal Euroskeptic colleagues.
The opposition Labor Party has savored the discord across the aisle, describing it as a reflection of a prime minister unable to exert his authority over the rank and file.
"The Tories love to have a fight about Europe. This is history repeating itself," Emma Reynolds, Labor's spokeswoman on Europe, told the BBC. "We've seen this for the last 20 years. They're in complete chaos and disarray. And Cameron's [lawmakers] clearly don't trust him to deliver on something he said he would deliver on."
Meeting with Obama on Monday, Cameron argued the case for a free-trade agreement between the U.S. and the EU, which would encompass more than 800 million people.
In an opinion piece for the Wall Street Journal, Cameron wrote that such a deal would boost Britain's gross domestic product by as much as $15 billion and America's by $100 billion. For Britain to enjoy the benefits of such a transatlantic pact, however, it would have to remain part of the EU.
"I look forward to launching negotiations with the EU in the coming months," Obama said at a joint news conference with Cameron at the White House. "I believe we have a real opportunity to cut tariffs, open markets, create jobs and make all of our economies even more competitive."
Unusually, the Obama administration this year publicly warned Britain that withdrawal from the EU would diminish its "special relationship" with the U.S., which has traditionally looked to London to help represent American interests in continental Europe.
But the president offered some backing Monday for Cameron's approach.
"The UK's participation in the EU is an expression of its influence and its role in the world, as well as obviously a very important economic partnership," Obama said. "Now ultimately, the people of the UK have to make decisions for themselves. But … David's basic point — that you probably want to see if you can fix what's broken in a very important relationship before you break it off — makes some sense to me."