LONDON (Reuters) - More than 50 lawmakers in Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservative Party launched a campaign to back Britain’s exit from the EU unless he can get it to adopt radical reforms, even as U.S. President Barack Obama argued in favor of staying.
Cameron, riding high after a surprise outright victory in last month’s parliamentary election, wants to claw back powers from the European Union before holding a referendum by the end of 2017 on whether Britain should stay or leave.
But the formation of the new campaign group, Conservatives for Britain (CfB), underlined the challenge he faces within his own party from ‘Eurosceptics’ who doubt his chances of breaking what they see as the stifling grip of Brussels.
“We wish David Cameron every success, but unless senior EU officials awake to the possibility that one of the EU’s largest members is serious about a fundamental change in our relationship, our recommendation to British voters seems likely to be exit,” Conservative lawmaker Steve Baker said on Sunday.
Highlighting the conflicting pressures the British leader faces, Obama stressed Washington’s concern to see its close ally remain in the 28-nation EU.
Speaking alongside Cameron on the sidelines of a Group of Seven summit in Germany, Obama said: “I would note that one of the great values of having the United Kingdom in the European Union is its leadership and strength on a whole host of global challenges.
“And so we very much are looking forward to the United Kingdom staying a part of the European Union because we think that its influence is positive not just for Europe but also for the world.”
Cameron wants to restrict EU migrants’ access to British welfare payments, improve the single market for trading of goods and services, and win safeguards to ensure that countries that don’t use the euro, like Britain, are not put at a disadvantage by greater integration among those that do.
Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said the government was seeking changes to EU treaties to protect its reforms, and that he believed the renegotiation could fix Britain’s relationship with the bloc.
“There was always going to be a group of our colleagues who wanted to come out of the European Union come what may,” Hammond said when asked about CfB.
“That is not where the government is... we’re clear that the European Union isn’t working, as it is at the moment, it’s not fit for the 21st century, but we think it’s fixable.”
Baker said CfB had already signed more than 50 lawmakers and expected numbers to soon rise to about 100, including some ministers.
He said some members in the group wanted Cameron to win the power to veto EU laws - something Hammond ruled out, saying it would “effectively be the end of the European Union”.
On Saturday, the leader of the anti-EU UK Independence Party (UKIP) called for Eurosceptic politicians from rival parties to put aside “personal animosities” and begin the “No” campaign against Britain’s continued membership of the bloc.
A survey by polling firm ICM indicated that 59 percent of Britons supported staying in the EU, and 41 percent wanted to leave.
In an interview with the Observer newspaper, Rafal Trzaskowski, Poland’s Minister for European Affairs, said European leaders wanted Britain to stay in the EU, but not at any cost.
“Many people in Europe want to be accommodating,” he said. “But if the demands are too extreme, they are not going to be met.”
Additional reporting by Jeff Mason in Kruen, Germany; Editing by Mark Trevelyan