LONDON: The Prime Minister, David Cameron, returning from an EU summit where he had a furious row with the French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, was facing a backbench revolt last night from Conservatives who want a referendum on pulling out of the European Union.
As tempers frayed on Sunday among several European leaders struggling to agree on how to fix the deepening euro zone crisis, Mr Cameron fought for the right to have a say in the final plan to be hammered out in Brussels on Wednesday.
Initially only the 17 countries that use the single currency were to be at the midweek emergency meeting over debt but Mr Cameron insisted the union’s other members be allowed to have a say.
Mr Sarkozy retorted: “You have lost a good opportunity to shut up … We are sick of you criticising us and telling us what to do. You say you hate the euro and now you want to interfere in our meetings.”
Mr Cameron has cancelled a trip to Japan and New Zealand to attend tomorrow’s summit.
It was agreed that all 27 EU countries would debate the crucial rescue measures – to recapitalise banks, boost the bail-out fund and write down Greek debt – but only the 17 euro countries will vote on them.
At Mr Cameron’s insistence, leaders inserted into the final communique a promise to safeguard a level playing field for non-euro nations.
Europe’s troubles have bolstered the cause of Britain’s euro-sceptics, who fear the cost of future bailouts and who want to wrestle certain regulatory powers back from Brussels.
Mr Cameron has suggested that if treaty changes were required for a euro rescue plan Britain might agree to back them if it got some of its powers back.
But Mr Cameron has said it is not the time for a referendum and has given his MPs a “three-whip” order, the strongest instruction possible, to vote against the proposal on pain of losing their government positions. “I don’t think this is the right time to legislate for an in/out referendum,” Mr Cameron said. “This is the right time to sort out the euro zone’s problems, defend your national interest and look to the opportunities there may be in the future to repatriate powers back to Britain. Obviously the idea of some limited treaty change in the future might give us that opportunity.”
The vote overnight is expected to be the largest revolt he has faced as a leader, with up to 90 defying him, although the proposal is still likely to fail as Labour and the Liberal Democrats are expected to vote against it.
But Mr Cameron’s authority will be undermined if he is challenged by up to a third of his parliamentary party.
Meanwhile Mr Sarkozy and the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, attacked Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi, demanding he take tougher measures to get Italy’s debt under control. Markets fear Italy could be the next economy to succumb to a sovereign debt crisis.
The weekend summit agreed in principle on a €100 billion ($133.8 billion) plan to recapitalise Europe’s banks, expected to be announced tomorrow.
First published in the Sydney Morning Herald.