LONDON, United Kingdom, Feb 21 – Britain will vote on its membership of the European Union on June 23, Prime Minister David Cameron said Saturday as he began the daunting challenge of persuading the country to stay.
He announced the date for the referendum after a two-hour cabinet meeting where he briefed ministers on the deal he struck in Brussels on Friday, that he said will give Britain “special status” in the EU.
“We are approaching one of the biggest decisions this country will face in our lifetimes,” Cameron said, addressing the nation outside his 10 Downing Street residence.
“The choice goes to the kind of country we want to be,” he said, warning that proponents of leaving were offering “a risk at a time of uncertainty, a leap in the dark”.
Britain would be “safer, stronger and better off” in the 28-member bloc, he said, calling the concessions negotiated with other EU leaders “the best of both worlds”.
The referendum campaign will be bitterly contested in a country with a long tradition of euroscepticism and a hostile right-wing press, with opinion polls showing Britons are almost evenly divided.
“The starting gun has been fired,” the UK Independence Party (UKIP) said in a statement.
“The 23rd is our golden opportunity, let battle be joined,” Nigel Farage, the party’s leader, said, branding the EU deal “pathetic”.
“We must look forward to work with everybody who cares about our future, a future where the people of Britain controls her own borders, where we can make our own trade deals and make our own laws.
“We want our country back,” he said.
Cameron’s Conservative party in particular is split over Europe, and no sooner had Saturday’s cabinet meeting ended than five of its 22 ministers announced they would be campaigning to leave.
Among them are justice minister Michael Gove, who said “this chance may never come again in our lifetimes”.
The biggest prize for the eurosceptic camp, which has so far been plagued by in-fighting and has no clear leader, would be Boris Johnson, the popular Conservative mayor of London.
Johnson, who has ambitions to succeed Cameron as leader of the Conservative party, has yet to declare his position.