LONDON (Reuters) - As little as a year before Britain votes on whether to leave the European Union, events risk derailing Prime Minister David Cameron’s carefully-laid plan to renegotiate EU membership and keep Britain in.
First Cameron compromised on the referendum question, then Eurosceptic Conservative backbenchers defeated him on campaign rules, the government’s first defeat since his unexpectedly strong victory in the May 7 general election.
By caving into the demands of Eurosceptics in his own party, Cameron has weakened his hand with some European diplomats who question whether he can master domestic politics to keep the EU’s second largest economy inside the club.
“The more he makes these concessions and the longer he delays clearly coming out for a ‘Yes’, the more that damages his reputation and credibility with his EU partners and the less likely they are to help him get a good deal,” said Charles Grant, director of the Centre for European Reform.
Now Cameron is struggling to navigate a refugee crisis that is fuelling domestic opposition to British membership, while his refusal to take part in EU asylum plans has irritated the very leaders whose support he needs for his renegotiation.
German, French and Austrian leaders have warned Britain can’t expect help on its demands if it refuses any solidarity with the rest of Europe over the refugee issue. Cameron has pledged to take in 20,000 Syrians, but not from Europe.
Under pressure from lawmakers who feared the electoral success of the anti-EU UK Independence Party, Cameron promised in 2013 a referendum on membership by the end of 2017 after renegotiating aspects of the EU relationship.
The vote could happen as early as next year, with dates in either June or September seen as likely.
Cameron says that if he gets what he wants from European leaders, he will campaign to keep Britain in a reformed EU, but that if he doesn’t get the concessions he seeks, he would “rule nothing out.”
Without spelling out detailed demands, he has said he wants reforms to make the EU economy more competitive, better safeguards for national sovereignty, guarantees of fair treatment for countries that do not join the euro zone, and curbs on the welfare rights of migrants from EU countries.
“The PM is focused at the moment on that renegotiation and getting the reforms that are needed to address the concerns of the British people,” his spokeswoman said. “That’s the priority right now, and that’s what he and the team are focused on.”
Asked about a Financial Times report that the government had urged to business leaders to “shut up” about their support for EU membership, the spokeswoman said: “It struck me as more noise. There’s lots of noise.”.
Even before parliament returned from its summer holiday, Cameron was forced to change the wording on the referendum ballot from a simple “yes”/“no” answer to the question: “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union?”
To phrase the choice more openly, the independent Electoral Commission recommended it be changed to: “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?” The two possible answers would be: “remain a member of the European Union” and “leave the European Union”.
In the face of a revolt by Eurosceptic Conservative backbenchers, Cameron moved to impose stronger limits on the involvement of the government in the campaign.
But the rushed last-minute amendments to the EU Referendum Bill didn’t placate more than 35 Conservative Eurosceptics who voted with the opposition Labour Party and Scottish nationalists to defeat the government on Monday.
They say a full period of “purdah”, barring the government from publishing anything that could influence the outcome in the final 28 days, is vital to make the referendum fair.
“We have already gone — farcically — too far in neutralising the ability of the government to give an authoritative opinion and explanation of the facts and the issues in the course of the campaign,” pro-EU Conservative veteran Ken Clarke told lawmakers.
In Brussels and London, there remains considerable uncertainty about exactly what Cameron wants and how it can be accommodated without breaching basic principles such as freedom of movement for EU workers and non-discrimination among European citizens.
Exploratory talks between senior British and EU officials have started behind closed doors and EU leaders have been promised a progress report in December.
One senior EU diplomat, among many whose government is anxious not to see Britain leave, said Cameron’s recent difficulties with his party and the state of domestic politics left him alarmed at the prospect of an “accidental Brexit”.
“It looks like Cameron has started something he can’t control,” the envoy said.
Some supporters of British membership are worried at a lack of urgency among pro-EU campaigners despite the shifting sands of British politics, including the prospect of a distinctly more Eurosceptic Labour Party if Jeremy Corbyn is elected leader.
“My biggest worry is complacency,” said one pro-European who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Where is the renegotiation? Where is the ‘In’ campaign? Where is the overall strategy? Who is in charge?”
As Cameron struggles to keep his party together, there are signals that the notoriously volatile British public view of the EU could be shifting again in response to the crisis over a massive influx of refugees into Europe, with one poll showing a narrow majority in favour of leaving.
The Survation poll for the Mail on Sunday newspaper found 51 percent of respondents wanted out, while 49 percent were in favour of remaining, excluding undecided voters.
“This is an issue on which public opinion has shifted quite a lot,” said Professor John Curtice of Strathclyde University, a leading authority on British polling.
“It’s potentially quite volatile and will therefore depend on events, on the negotiations and on the quality of the campaigning,” he said.
Given that Britain’s tortured relationship with the EU contributed to the fall of both his Conservative predecessors, Margaret Thatcher and John Major, Cameron can only hope he can keep control of unpredictable events in the run-up to the vote.
Additional reporting by Kylie MacLellan, William James and Costas Pitas in London and Alastair Macdonald in Brussels; Editing by Paul Taylor