A referendum on Britain's EU membership could happen as soon as 2017 after U.K.'s parliament overwhelmingly voted in favor of the plan to allow citizenship decide if they should continue in the bloc. However, the intense debate before the lawmakers' voting took place ignited passions that exposed profound divisions within Prime Minister David Cameron's Conservative Party.
Voters will be asked, “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union?”
It is a campaign Cameron has been pushing for since 2013. He has promised to negotiate a new deal with the European bloc, aimed at, among other things, reducing migrant flow to the U.K.
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Parliamentary members voted 544 in favor and 53 against. But the despite the landslide approval, various questions and controversies surfaced, such as new government rules that would allow Cameron to campaign in favor of the plebiscite with taxpayers money.
Many Eurosceptic lawmakers praised the chance for voters to express their view, but they were fiercely opposed to certain details in the bill, including plans to do away with restrictions on government campaign activity in the run-up to the referendum.
Reuters reported that Britain's election watchdog says it is concerned about the scrapping of a so-called "purdah" period, which bars the government from making public anything which could influence the results. It warned it could see the government utilizing unlimited amounts of public funds on promoting its preferred result, giving an “unfair advantage to one side of the argument.”
Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond assured Cameron's administration would not use large amounts of public money to support any one side in particular, however, the lawmakers were not convinced.
"If the British people sense there is no fairness, that this is being rigged against them ... that will go down extremely badly," Conservative lawmaker and former minister Owen Paterson said. "This incredibly important moment could be seen to be illegitimate."
"Any attempt now to rig this vote now will simply amplify the distrust the voters already have," Eurosceptic Conservative lawmaker Bill Cash, who led a rebellion against Major over the EU's Maastricht treaty in the early 1990s, told Reuters.
The members of parliament from the Scottish National Party, which took almost all seats in Scotland in the recent general elections, are against the bill. The SNP warns its members could demand another referendum on Scotland’s independence from the U.K. if England votes in favor of abandoning the EU bloc.
"It would be outrageous, disgraceful, undemocratic and unacceptable to drag Scotland out of the European Union against the wishes and will of the Scottish people,"Alex Salmond, former SNP leader, told parliament.
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